Spectre – Sam Mendes (2015)

It has been forever since I’ve seen a Bond movie. And by forever, I mean, I’ve never seen one on the big screen, and the last one I can remember purposefully sitting down to watch all the way through was a VHS copy of Never Say Never Again that I got from the public library when I was a kid. Sure, I have seen most of the Bond films from the Connery era, all on cable television, and the Lazenby Bond film, and Casino Royale (the first version, with Woody Allen), and bits and pieces of many of the others, also on cable television. And I played Goldeneye to death on the N64 (but have no interest in the film, as Pierce Brosnan always seemed the Bond with the lowest yield). I even read a whole damn big glossy coffee table Bond fanbook from cover to cover! So somehow I know plenty about Bond, without really caring. Based on the trailer, I had no interest in seeing Spectre because, in truth, all the Daniel Craig Bond trailers have looked the same to me – palette of gunmetal, a perpetually cloudy sky, and little in the way of the trappings that have always screamed Bond. I understand the reason for this, as the Craig films are Bond 2.0, with a stripped down, “realistic,” (that is, dark) sensibility, and no taste for camp, cheese, or many of the colors of the rainbow. They have serious actors playing serious villains; no Donald Pleasence (God rest his soul) stroking his kitty while cookie cutter lamebrains “die” by jumping this way and that, but rather heavy hitters like Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem coldly calculating the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Such is Bond in the age of global terror. But I was desperate – desperate for some escapism, and for a movie that wasn’t all talking, but heavier on the doing, even if what it was doing was of little consequence. And I like Christoph Waltz, although, if I am honest, it was the prospect of seeing Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux at 20 foot scale that sealed it for me. And yes, I am happy to report I was mercilessly entertained and even, at times, somewhat moved. (Say what?)

Spectre picks up after the events of Skyfall (which, having not seen, I assumed had more import than they do – more on that later). M (is for Mommy) Judy Dench is dead, and a sense of rebirth and/or the afterlife permeates the whole film. We get this from the first shot, which opens with Bond dropped into the Dios de la Muerte festivities in Mexico City, sent to dispatch an assassin by the end of the opening set piece, which is a goody. Although Bond accomplishes his task handily, new M Ralph Fiennes is none too pleased, as he did it without the proper indemnification, it seems. So Bond is ordered grounded, pending the reorganization of the double aught program into a new MI6 overseen by a young Orwellian data hungry war on terror type (Andrew Scott), C. C is hot to link up all the governmental surveillance operations of the world on the same intranet, and thus keep us all safe in a warm cocoon woven by this unblinking and fiery eye of cyberSauron. Bond, though, has captured a mysterious ring off the finger of the dispatched assassin which he wants to further investigate. He is thus, with a little help from Q (Ben Whishaw), forced to go AWOL, and travels to Italy to get the skinny from the assassin’s widow (a brief, brief, all too brief appearance by Ms. Bellucci). The widow informs Bond that the shady organization her husband worked for (Spectre, duh) is meeting in Italy that same night! Bond hightails it over there, in time to see a new court assassin appointed while discovering that Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man thought dead, is the chairman of the board. Barely escaping the palatial grounds of the malevolent mind-meld, Bond is pursued through the streets (and the rest of the movie) by said assassin, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), who is hard to kill and likes to keep his fingernails long. He of course escapes, and is soon on the trail of Mr. White, a Spectre flunky who holds the secrets of the organization, but is dying of thallium poisoning. Mr. White doesn’t have much time, or incentive, to help, but he does have a daughter who knows where the secrets be hid, and so Bond agrees to protect the daughter if White tells him where to find her. It turns out daughter Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) works on the top of a mountain at an exclusive medical clinic – all the better for a nice set piece as Bond pursues her down the mountain in the clutches of Hinx. Retrieved, Swann and Bond go to Morocco, uncover the secret of Spectre’s location, and are eventually chauffeured there courtesy of Oberhauser – or, should I say, Blofeld! Blofeld and Bond have an interesting shared backstory, and eventually must do battle in London, with Swann’s life in the balance. About the climax, I will say no more, except that we learn how Blofeld got his blind eye (he had the kitty all along, apparently).

Spectre has everything that you want a Bond movie to have, plus some. There are big set pieces, bigger than life baddies, beautiful women, and, thanks to director Sam Mendes, action that is staged with clarity, a minimum of digital stupidity, and a very snappy script. Yes, the climax is ludicrous, and given the outcome is what we expect, they could have gone with a less is more approach. And yes, all of C’s, and M’s, rantings and waxings poetic (respectively) about democracy seem quaint to the point of camp. But this is Bond plus, and it is mostly due to the presence of Léa Seydoux. Not only is her character strong, and often Bond’s equal (although, yes, she does have to be rescued in the end), Seydoux is a remarkable actress and brings what could be a rote role to life, imbuing her scenes with a palpable sense of loss that gives weight to her connection with Bond – we care what happens in the end, and want both of them to live happily ever after. Moreover, Spectre feels like the summing up of the previous Craig Bond films; the introduction of Blofeld, and Spectre, ties together the previous story lines and marks the end of one era and the beginnings of another (post-Craig, perhaps?). In the aftermath of Skyfall, which was curiously flat and underwhelming, with action more fit for a Tom Clancy or Bourne movie and with the tedious and weird Oedipal overtones that made the whole film about M, Spectre plays almost like a swan song to the world of Bond as it was in the 1960s. That is, a world where democracy mattered (or at least seemed possible) and where systems of totalitarian techno control were harebrained schemes of evil geniuses, and not a fait accompli proffered up to techno “wizards” by a passive public. The last shot (which I won’t give away) feels like Bond is retreating back into the era from which he emerged, and to which the logics of his persona make most sense. We feel not nostalgia, exactly, but instead elegiac, sad at the distance between the world as it was, even fictionalized, and as it is now, so debased that it cannot be recouped into fiction without at the same time denying its own reality. Spectre deals with this split deftly, portraying M’s vision of saving democracy not without irony, but also never sneering at it – rather referencing it as the hopeful candy colored dream of a 20th century now long, and definitively, dead. (Or, like Bond, set to rise again?)

Four stars out of five

The Assassin – Hou Hsiao-Hsien (2015)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in eight years, The Assassin has been greeted with nearly unanimous rapture. Critics’ reports from Cannes nearly all claimed it the best film in competition, calling it beautiful and enigmatic, and stateside reviews have been just as positive. The film is Hsiao-Hsien’s take on the wuxia genre, which, in both literature and film, focuses on the doings of lone heroes, usually assassins, who wield their martial art skills for the purposes of righting wrongs or restoring the proper balance to tectonic powers. The form is largely a literary one, and Hsiao-Hsien has talked about how such books were an inspiration to him growing up. Many Asian directors do make a wuxia story at some time (usually earlier in their career), so for Hsiao-Hsien, who is now 68, this film is obviously a labor of love. While predominately a genre of Hong Kong cinema (although Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese), American audiences are probably most familiar with the genre by way of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. Such films, while full of drama and intrigue, do usually fall under the category of marital arts film, and you expect at least an equal portion of action to the dramatics. Those familiar with Hsiao-Hsien’s style (he is renowned for his use of a static camera and long takes, as in Flowers of Shanghai, which is comprised of 38 lengthy shots) will not be surprised to learn that his version of the wuxia format takes a markedly, although not radically, different aesthetic tack when it comes to working through the narrative. While not as austere and immobile as his previous films, the camera is still quite static, and the takes are longer than one would certainly expect for an “action” film; the action itself is often discursively portrayed, and even when the focus of a scene, rarely feels immediate or exciting. Whereas in previous films his use of long takes and long shots allowed the story to unfold in a grounded, observational manner (even when characters spend long chunks of time in monologue), here the technique feels an odd hybrid. The cutting is comparatively quicker than in previous work, but still very slow and strange for an action film – often, a character or pair of characters will spend the first half of a shot speaking, and then the remainder of the shot features the character standing and staring, immobile, or with very little affect. I must admit I am completely at a loss as to what the aesthetic value of this technique is supposed to be. It seems intended to impress upon us the import of whatever information or emotion was just imparted or portrayed, but instead it feels leaden and pretentious, stagy and, quite honestly, boring.

The story is quite hard to follow, partly because Hsiao-Hsien does not try to bring us along easily or make relationships explicit, and partly because the concerns of the plot are quite remote to us. The film is set in China during the 7th century, and revolves around a young female assassin named Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu). Yinniang has been in exile from her family for years, training with a nun versed in the ways of treachery on a mountaintop somewhere. Previously chided by her mentor for being too soft-hearted and slow to kill, Yinniang is now tasked with proving her mettle by returning to her family and slaying her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) who is the ruler of her home region of Weibo. The nun relates to Yinniang how Weibo previously was on the verge of splitting away from Imperial rule, and it was Yinniang’s mother (if I followed the plot fully) who restored harmony through marriage. Now the province is again on the verge of challenging Imperial rule, and so it is the daughter’s task to kill her cousin to prevent this. The problem is that Yinniang not only doesn’t want to kill her cousin because he is family, but because she is in love with him. Thus the bulk of the film consists of her oftentimes playing the good cousin inside his court, and in the remainder skulking around with the intent of killing him, but never being able to go through with the deed. For his part, Ji’an starts to feel something is not right, and intuits that Yinniang is an assassin and wants him dead – so he vacillates between a desire to prevent this eventuality and, realizing she has done nothing wrong yet, wanting to figure her out (we suspect he also harbors similarly romantic feelings towards her). The film thus becomes a strange pas de deux, with both parties neither able to commit to violence or to ravishment, and so at least this viewer was left feeling similarly unresolved and jammed up. Eventually Yinniang returns to her mentor, confesses her inability to do what she was trained to do, and the movie ends.

Many of the positive reviews of the film I’ve read comment on how wonderfully staged and exciting the action is; am I missing something? Perhaps for a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film it is fast paced, but the action is very minimal indeed. At the beginning, Yinniang jumps out of the treeline and slits the throat of a passing noble. Is there blood? No. Is the camerawork particularly interesting or more active than in a typical such film? No. Are the acrobatics more inventively staged or more dynamic than in your average Hong Kong martial arts film? No, no, a thousand times no. While the film seemingly does not make use of the stupid digital effects of Crouching Tiger, which at least keeps what is portrayed rooted in reality, I did not find the martial arts segments (which are what makes a wuxia a wuxia after all) terribly interesting. The most interesting thing about the action sequences is that the majority are abortive, unresolved, and (unlike the introductory assassination) staged at a distance. For instance, we will see, in a long shot, guards on patrol within a treeline. Suddenly we see the branches bobbing and dancing, and can just make out, within the treeline, Yinniang appearing and disappearing, apparently killing some guards. Then, just as soon as the disturbance arrived, it departs. We don’t see who died, or even have an idea if anyone did, or why the attack took place at all. (I fully admit I might have missed crucial information throughout that would clarify such things). In all, almost nobody dies in the film, and the action is there only to foreground the impossibility of acting for the protagonist. So we have a few scenes like that, and then many, many scenes set in palace interiors, with characters talking, or more often declaiming, and then posing statically until we go to the next such scene. While I will admit I am vexed by the film, and intrigued by Hsiao-Hsien’s intentions, the experience of watching it did not deliver any immediate emotional or even intellectual payoff. Yes, it is a “beautiful” film, in the way that many international art film directors can deliver a “beautiful” film (especially when dealing with a remote time period) – the lighting is rich and natural, candles make interiors dens of shifting shadows, cast in a golden hue, there is much flowing fabric and verdant natural surroundings, and the sound design is quite good. But the results are soporific. For all the accusations that it was totalitarian, I will take Yimou’s full-blooded Hero any day of the week. If this marks me as a philistine, so be it.

Two and a half stars out of five

Sicario – Denis Villeneuve (2015)

There have been many films about drugs, and about the war on drugs. Most of them deal, a la Scarface, with the “gritty” street realities of the trade, or with power struggles within and between various factions of organized crime. (Such films are really just a variation on the more traditional gangster film, with drugs sprinkled over the top as a way to provide viewers with a vicarious high). Fewer films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, attempt to view the problem from a wider perspective and look at the structures that undergird the continual failure of this war, attempting to dramatize the failure of a systemic response to a systemic problem. Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, hews closer to this second model, but is a fresh hybrid. In some ways, it resembles an intragovernmental procedural of the Zero Dark Thirty school, with intrigues between and internecine battling among the FBI, DEA, CIA, etc. taking center stage. In other ways, though, it is a fairly straightforward revenge thriller, less Dirty Harry and more Death Wish (although we understand this only in the final quarter of the film, even if we’ve been feeling it all along). It is also an action film, and there are touches of the Western, the war film, and the bildungsroman, as we follow a neophyte officer from innocence to experience. What makes the film remarkable, though, is that it is all of a piece; the hybrid nature does not poke out, and the film does not seem a pastiche of various genres, but one sinuous, long, smoothly moving and tightly coiling snake. Unlike Traffic, which often jerks from one place, and tone, to another, and which also often becomes leaden and boring, Sicario is extremely easy to follow and consistently pleasurable to watch.

The film unfolds in three acts, with very little connective tissue in between (that is, just enough) and no flab or extraneous material. We begin at the scene of a purported kidnapping, which turns out to be a cartel-owned house in a Phoenix subdivision, the walls of which are stuffed full of dead bodies. At the scene of this crime, we are introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), our avatar in this world, as well as her friend and somewhat partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and her boss (Victor Garber). Kate works for the FBI, but as a liaison for kidnapping cases; she has no real experience within the world of drug dealing. After this introduction (which ends in a trauma I won’t reveal), Kate is debriefed by a room full of drug enforcement interests from various agencies. The most powerful man in the room is not her boss, but Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the head of a task force dedicated to reducing cross-border drug violence. Matt is strange in ways that indicate he is a potential rogue presence: unlike the rest of those present, who are dressed in suits, Matt is very casually dressed (he wears flip-flops) and he takes a special interest in questioning Kate on her personal life and marital status. (We think he is hitting on her, but by the end of the movie, we understand he has a very different, and ice-cold, pretext for his questions). Kate is asked to volunteer for Matt’s task force, and after a little consideration, she does so. (Again, we spend much of the movie questioning why this seasoned force would want her on their team – it seems a Hollywood contrivance – only to have the reasoning made painfully clear in the final quarter of the film). Act two of the film involves the task force, with the aid of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unconnected to any official agency, retrieving a high level drug suspect from a jail on the Mexican side of the border and bringing him back to a military base on the U.S. side for questioning. Act three of the film takes up the search for a drug tunnel gleaned from information provided by said suspect’s interrogation. The drug tunnel operation is basically a ruse, however, to lure one of the cartel’s high level enforcers into contacting the big boss, revealing his location to the task force. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath of the tunnel raid, and the ultimate goal of everything that has occurred is revealed, both to Kate and to us.

There are many things this film does exceptionally well. First and foremost, it is structured in a very straightforward way, and with very little dialogue, but still manages to convey all of the intricacies and gray zones of the drug war, and of working across international borders and among multiple agencies, without ever belaboring it, getting bogged down in detail, or resorting to clichés (characters bemoaning inefficiencies, overly cynical explanations to newbies, etc). Fundamentally, the film is a thriller, and the structure and pacing pulls us through, tightening the ropes as it goes (in a way very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work). Each of the film’s acts centers on an action sequence – in act two it is the attempted assassination of the drug suspect before he can be brought onto U.S. soil, and in act three it is the infiltration of the drug tunnel. What makes the film work so well is not just the structure, but every other factor as well. First, there is the cinematography (courtesy of the always excellent Roger Deakins). It is both gritty and beautiful, and makes amazing use of available light – the darks (and there are many of them) are truly dark, night sequences are lucid yet atmospheric, and the sunsets of the southwest have rarely been more sensuously shot. At the same time, this beauty is grounded in a thoroughgoing realism, which is perhaps most on display during the trip into Ciudad Juarez to pick up the drug suspect. (The difference between Texas and Mexico is not night and day, but it is stark, grim, and the entire sequence seems to have been filmed on location at the border). A good part of the realism, and much of the lucidity of the staging, comes from the use of “technological” points of view. For instance (and especially in the unfolding of act two), we have many shots from the viewpoint of a drone; that is, a camera floating far above the action, but close enough to make clear the extent of the terrain being traveled into and through, and the exact location of all parties we need to care about. Unlike other films that have utilized such footage, Sicario does not spell it out as “drone footage” – we do not see HUD or targeting artifacts to betray to us “where” this footage comes from. In this sense, it is not jarring, and could simply be an aesthetic choice – the drone lies latent, behind this footage, unannounced. Villeneuve also makes use of infrared/night goggle footage and thermal imaging during the tunnel raid, and this footage is, while obviously tied to the equipment worn by the characters, equally seamless in its insertion. I would even dare to say it might be the first use of such footage that I would call lovely, and every use is purposeful in increasing the tension and putting us, as viewers, in the same zone of imperfect information as the characters. The music is subtle, spare, and works on us slowly, in pace with the increasing tension. The acting, like the rest of the film, is controlled and (unlike in some of Michael Mann’s work) never histrionic. (Indeed, Benicio Del Toro, who carries the last quarter of the film, has rarely been better). I suppose the film, like many actioners or thrillers, doesn’t have much of a politics beyond a weary, cynical resignation, but that does not bother me in the slightest, as it also keeps the script taut and without any unnecessary moralizing (we can see how failed things are, without needing to be told). Like Whiplash of last year, Sicario is a film that could easily appeal to a mass audience, but which also has much to offer lovers of serious film. I have no pithy or solemn words on which to end, except to recommend the film to one and (almost) all.

Four and a half stars out of five

Spy – Paul Feig (2015)

We live in a post-comedy era. Why wouldn’t we? We’re post everything else. Modern comedy is all meta; nothing but a funhouse full of indexes that point only toward each other. What this means in practice is that we get comedies made about what we find funny, or don’t, rather than comedies that actually are funny. Trying is so ten years ago. I will happily blame Will Ferrell, the comedic master of a no-style form of humor that references “funny” while delivering a parody of comedy. Being unfunny, lame, or simply badly done becomes the point of the joke, such that any scenario played “straight” (that is, acknowledging of its foolishness while carrying on with it sincerely) becomes comedy. In such a mode, any stupidity or crass conceit succeeds simply by being executed with a po face. In fact, add an out of left field reference to any fairly straight scene of rote dramaturgy, beat the presence of the oddball element to death (or have everyone ignore it), and you have the recipe for the secret sauce. Thus we veer in such films between strange clumps of exposition, where the only cue as to the parodic element of a topic is conveyed by the florid churlishness or stupidity with which it is expressed, and longueurs of profanity filled rants, as characters roll their eyes at having to restate the obvious, the obvious being the way they (and the other characters) fail to fit into expected stereotypes. Yes, we all know what would happen in this type of a situation, and regardless if what is expected happens or not, the characters pitch a fit at having to contemplate which side of the cartoon border they fall on (Tijuana on one side or the arid desert of Wylie E. Coyote on the other). Most often, a character will spit out some over-the-top profanity about how annoyed they are at having to remind the other characters what a stereotype like themselves should be able to expect from a stereotype like these others, and then we are supposed to laugh, either at the stupidity of living in a universe of stereotypes, or at the inclination that anyone could, in the realm of a representation, take their representations seriously enough to expect anything of them. All this adds up to a flat world where what is “funny” is basically playing off of or reinforcing, in sarcastic fashion, what we expect, and is thus “reflexive.” “You expected this, but ha, you got that” trades off with “you expected that, and fie on you, so take this.” The historical nexus of this type of comedy, albeit modulated by fewer profanities, arose, I would guess, in the mid-90s on SNL, the golden era of comedians laughing at their own inert material, playing out gossamer thin concepts until, at the 10 minute mark, you couldn’t believe it wasn’t 1 a.m. yet. Lameness, self-awareness, and baroque concepts were elevated, actual wit, inventiveness, and the visual (unless it be a one-note shock) were forgotten. This is the cinematic world we live in today, a world where we see so much material that is “funny” that we laugh as a conditioned response. We know funny when we see it, and we’ll laugh because we see it – all the better if everyone else around sees it and laughs too, confirming us in our good humor. The result is like Facebook (and much of our culture) – an echo chamber of lame toothlessness that we all “like,” and accept, because that is the nature of being on Facebook. To behave otherwise on Facebook is anti-Facebook. In a similar way, to remain unamused at a comedy is anti-social.

Getting around to the inevitable, Spy is very, very mediocre. I like Melissa McCarthy well enough; she is a solid actress, who, I must say, has not had good enough material yet to prove her mettle. Her elevation to exceptional status and cultural hero says more about the pathetic condition of women within the image factory than it says about her prowess as a performer. If she were really breaking any new ground, would she always be cast in comedies, and always comedies that revolve around how unexpectedly (normal, nice, intelligent, able, sexy, etc.) she is, given that she’s “real?” Anyone who thinks that this film is not primarily humor about being large, dowdy, and female needs to reexamine this film. Yes, we are no longer in the era of making fun of someone for being dowdy; we simply make fun of dowdy. As long as we make the stylish, thin people “mean” or “shallow,” and the large, dowdy, and normal-looking folks “decent,” and on the road to newly discovered self-esteem, it’s all good – we can proceed as usual. I am not offended by such things, I am simply bored senseless. Films like this seem to mistake casual observation for sharp parody. Spy films of this ilk have been self-parodies ever since Roger Moore (even the era of Connery was tongue in cheek) – Spy simply heightens some of the more ridiculous aspects of the genre, has every character comment on themselves, or the goings on, in a self-aware fashion, throws in a damned generous handful of non-sequiturs (truly Ferrell’s biggest contribution to the current style) and voila! Let them eat funny cake. It is all very lazy. For instance, in Spy, technology has become intensely useful and good, to the point that Melissa McCarthy, sitting at her terminal in D.C., has more information about what is about to happen to Jude Law than Jude Law does. She guides him through all the tough parts, like the love child of Siri and Jiminy Cricket. If anyone were to protest how much of the plot is driven by ludicrous technological machines of the deus-ex model line, that person would be laughed at as a tinfoil hat wearing doofus. Of course it’s ludicrous! It’s a comedy! Yes, parody is that which exculpates any type of narrative stupidity, and allows laziness to be recast as a virtue. The problem is, wit is the least lazy form of all. Ultimately, we have the comedies that we deserve – slack affirmations of self-congratulation for the increasingly empty-headed, glazed-eyed consumers we have become. Nothing is deadlier to comedy than complacency, or affirmation. There are indeed some funny set pieces in the film, and if you’re a fan of Anchorman et al., I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. As for myself, I swear my standards aren’t that demanding. Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give the film a star for each of the laughs it provided.

Two and a half stars out of five

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (2015)

I will unashamedly admit that this film had me stoked from the first trailer I saw. The Mad Max “franchise” (undeserving of such happenstance camaraderie with the Burger King or Grimace) is my favorite ’80s sequel series. The original Mad Max was a damned good, and original, thriller with touches of Dirty Harry and a grungy punk aesthetic that both presaged, and out-imagined in its down-to-earth granularity, many of its subsequent post-“post” brethren. The Road Warrior is what we think of when we think about Mad Max – it re-imagined the “day after tomorrow” scenario of the first film into a stylized, post-apocalyptic, no-holds-barred action film that was essentially one long chase sequence with some of the most effective, and dynamic, staging and characters to ever grace a screen during the reign of Reagan. Beyond Thunderdome, much maligned in some circles, is also, while the least of the three, a great film, and expanded the concept of The Road Warrior into the realm of Hollywood Blockbuster – the hair was big, the emotions were big; trappings of opera with the taste of cheese. Tina Turner ruled Bartertown, if you busted a deal, you faced the wheel, and all was right with the world. Perhaps there is a better trilogy in terms of pure entertainment from that (or any?) decade, but if so, I can’t think of it right now. So yes, I have been anticipating Fury Road, and felt confident it would be good, despite the obvious shift to CGI. Of course, what marked the original series, and The Road Warrior in particular, was the use of camera movement, cutting, and ingenious stunt work to grab you by the face and keep dragging, non-stop, for 90 minutes. Okay, so now we live in the era of fake stunts, but George Miller was still on board, Tom Hardy (a favorite of mine, if not always rationally so) was cast as Max, Toecutter was back looking like Skeletor channeling Frank Booth, and, praise ye gods, Charlize Theron was also going to grace the screen, giving Max the female foil he finally deserves (nothing against Tina Turner). I plunked down my $10.50, and dared to hope. Me, excited to see a summer blockbuster? When the hell had that last happened? A.I. in 2001? That hardly qualifies.

The film, finding Max wandering as if in a new incarnation (which he is), dazed and altered, with a hazy connection to his past, picks up somewhat thematically from where Thunderdome left off. Max, after demonstrating he has grown more “mad” than when we last encountered him (conveyed by his voice-over ruminations and a new penchant for munching mutant lizard crudo), is captured by a cult of wackos called the War Boys, let by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He’s kept alive to serve as a “blood bag,” a plasma factory for Joe’s boys, who will die for Joe’s attention and huff silver paint to mark their kamikaze intentions, their desire to be taken to “Valhalla” and do him honor. Max is taken along by one Nux (Nicholas Hoult) to serve as his personal I.V. during an outing to reclaim a gasoline rig driver gone off the reservation. This driver, Imperator Furiosa (Ms. Theron), is on a secret, personal mission to liberate Joe of his kept wives, young women he has enslaved to breed some non-mutant, healthy babies to grow big, strong, and keep control of his personality cult. Furiosa, with her cargo tucked away in the tanker truck, is making for her remembered homeland, the Green Place, where she hopes to find refuge and a still-viable ecosystem cum feminist utopia. The end. Or rather, that’s all you really need to know. The rest of the film is a series of chase sequences as Furiosa and Max, eventually joining forces, flee the War Boys, along with various other factions, in an attempt to win their freedom, and, along the way, regain perhaps a gallon of hope (priced, in this future world, at $2,354,395,865 and 99/100 of a cent).

Yes, my friends, and my enemies, believe the hype: this film delivers the goods. I must admit to being quite disgruntled during the first 15 minutes or so. The pre-title sequence, which establishes Max’s capture, unfolds the realities of life in War Boy central (er, the Citadel), and introduces us to Furiosa, as well as portrays her initial flight from the male crazies, is a blur of too many quick cuts, and too much CGI embellishment. (Further, our wonderful digital print was marred by a line of pink pixels that looked like a swarm of angry, if fabulous, bees). 100 more minutes of this, thought I? Bollocks. Happily, after this sequence (which indeed comprises most of the material for the trailer), and once clear of the Citadel, things fell into a more familiar rhythm – 75% action, 25% exposition, with each chase sequence spare enough in its staging and lucid enough in its construction to deliver tension and excitement, in increasingly increasing increments, and each subsequent lull just enough of a rest, and a pause, to refresh and allow us to contemplate things that matter: the fate of pregnant young women, the improbability of hope in the face of numerous psychotic henchmen, and, by god, how good Charlize looks with axle grease smeared across the top half of her face. Many have made mention of this film as an example of feminism in action, and it is, but that is by the by in my estimation, as the narrative trappings are a bit cliche, even if true: women as the stewards of the environment and fosterers of coming generations, forced to fight fairly, if viciously, to defend the future from the corruption of horny, crazy, power-mad men. The feminism that is less cliche, and ought to be de rigueur in cinema these days, comes in the form of Theron’s character; in this film, the mantel of “madness” passes from Max to Furiosa, and she becomes the star of the show, an action hero with heart who kicks ass without being sexualized but with her femininity intact. Max lends a hand, and is crucial in certain moments, but in all feels a little around the bend, the burden of leadership settling squarely on Theron’s capable shoulders. (Tom Hardy is fine in the role, but his Max is more of an homage to the concept of Max, a riff on the Max we find at the beginning of The Road Warrior. Mel brought more depth and humanity to the role in his conflictedness, which seemed easy, and his charm, which he often fought to conceal).

At times, the film feels like a remake of The Road Warrior, which is not a bad thing. All the same, the scope of the enterprise has grown with each installment. In the original, we were in a backwater Australian town on the cusp of a “morning after” scenario; The Road Warrior dealt with Max encountering tribalism after the unnamed disastrous “event;” Beyond Thunderdome portrays the first vestiges of a new social order, a society rebuilding itself in the shape of a stable settlement, resembling a wild-West town. Fury Road takes that vision in Thunderdome to a new level. The War Boys, while technically a “cult,” are indeed a city-state, warring for resources with other regional civilizations, which we encounter only glancingly. They have massive numbers, infrastructure, “public” works, and a religion. While some have groused about the amount of anthropological detail and embellishment that flies at, and often by, the viewer in this film, I found it one of the chief pleasures. Miller has an obvious talent for this type of thing, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, and the length of the film coupled with, yes, the CGI, allows him to explore this aspect of the saga at a level previously unavailable. (It also allows this entry to be the first citational one, as he visually tips his hat to the Sand People from Star Wars and the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal, among others). That said, this is a ripping good yarn in which most of the effects, generated by computers or not, feel real. Like the other titles in the series, everything feels up for grabs, and we never get the sense that anything is sacred or that Miller will pull punches to court mass appeal; no winking or reflexive in-jokes as in many reboots, thankfully, and there’s a political dimension too. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, as visual clarity in that format is simply nonexistent, but Miller makes such effective use of the Z axis even in the regular format that I’m going to return to see it from behind finger-smudged germ goggles. The film is no masterpiece, and I’d rank it in a tie for 3rd (with Thunderdome) as my favorite of the series, but it is indeed a thrill. I can’t imagine having a better time at the cinema this summer, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Four stars out of five

Chappie – Neil Blomkamp (2015)

Chappie has a lot of similarities to Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, at least in terms of style and theme, if not particulars. Both films are set in a dystopian near future where squalor and social strife are rampant. Both deal with misfits who band together to take on arms manufacturers. Both utilize a mixed bag of visual tropes, combining collages of news footage and reportage with action and dramatic sequences seemingly lifted from ’80s blockbusters. District 9 was interesting in parts, but overrated; the tone was uneven, veering from parody and an unlikable protagonist to social-issue tinged dramatics to body horror to straight up actioner with a now tragic protagonist (some would argue this is a character arc, I suppose, but the pacing of the enterprise, jerking moment by moment from one style to another, undercut my sympathies). Much was made of the social allegory that served as the overarching conceit of the film, but I found it sketchy, obvious, and glib. All the same, District 9 worked, and was enjoyable, as the film did deliver the goods during the action sequences. Chappie, on the other hand, works, but like Chappie himself – in a semi-broken, cobbled together way that annoys as much or more than it runs.

Again, we are in tomorrow’s Johannesburg, and again, we are concerned with the inner workings of a weapons manufacturer (run by boss Sigourney Weaver, in a thankless role). This company manufactures robotic police; the main product line, headed by developer Deon (Dev Patel), uses A.I. to provide lithe robots that serve as police shock troops, taking hits for the reduced regular forces that follow behind and clean up after them. These robots are not sentient per se, and do not think for themselves outside of their police duties – they are not Robocop. That role is left to the minority product line, developed solely by ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the office psycho and resident mullet wearer. He has been pushing his solution to rampant violence, the Moose, which looks like a small mech, or a larger version of the Robocop suite. It does not contain a human; rather, a human wears the headset from Brainstorm and runs the mech from a video-game console. (Why the helmet is necessary when joysticks are included is never explained). The Moose is getting no traction within the company, as the local cops see no need for cluster bombs, ballistic missiles, and chain guns within their arsenal. (Canny Americans would see no need for such discretion). The nimble scouts (as I think they’re called) are popular and work well, having tamped down violence in Johannesburg to record lows. Deon, in his free time, has been working on a more fulsome A.I. that will give the scouts consciousness; he wants to try out his work on a broken scout set for destruction, but CEO Weaver, seeing no upside to thinking, feeling shock troops, nixes the plan. Deon goes ahead and takes the droid home anyway, but at this point he is intercepted by the real plot, as “gangsters” Ninja and Yo-landi Visser (playing themselves, essentially) carjack him and his droid, wanting to use it to rob millions of dollars from an armored car to pay back their even more degenerate overlords. The Antwoords force Deon to upload consciousness to the now-repaired robot, and proceed to put the nature vs. nurture debate to a ghetto fabulous test as they become Chappie’s “Mom and Dad.” Mom is all protective and tries, along with Deon, to foster Chappie’s creativity and humanity, whereas Dad simply wants him to mimic his gangster stylings and be willing to do crimes with him. Chappie is torn between these two worlds, but somehow works out his own personality, a kind of wuss outre gangster who won’t use weapons and is only willing to stab people because convinced he’s helping them “nap.” All of this is given an existential boost by the fact of Chappie’s imminent demise; as a broken toy, his battery is low and cannot be recharged, meaning he will die in five days. Thus opportunities for him to explore all his emotions as he wrestles with the meaning of life and the question of why a benevolent Deon would bring him into this world only to let him die. (Oh, the humanity). There is a lot of death that finally goes down, as evil Hugh Jackman, now wise to the power of corporate espionage and inter-office skulduggery, uploads destructive viruses to the scouts, and leaves the Moose as the only option to deal with Chappie, now enemy number one as he has partaken in Dad’s armored car heist. Chappie, now human enough to compromise his integrity to gain a new body, eventually does make use of high-octane firepower, and although the Moose goes on to kill many, including Deon, Mom, and a slew of usefully slain baddies, Chappie manages to both render the Moose moot, as well as provide new bodies for all his dead or dying peeps. Of course, they now have to exist as robotic versions of themselves, but that’s apparently not a problem for anyone.

Sorry for that description, which feels both skimpy and overly-elaborate at the same time. Perhaps now you don’t need to see the film! There is not a lot to recommend about the movie, and I must warn that many will probably find Chappie himself as annoying as Jar-Jar (who he does sound like). I found him a little more likable, kind of like Johnny Five’s clueless foreign cousin (Balki Three?). The amount of swearing and violence – Chappie gets set on fire, gets his arm sawed off, and everyone in Blomkamp’s films tend to explode like massive blood squibs, a trait inherited from his mentor, Peter Jackson – probably rules out this being a film with family appeal, but the themes are too soft and the portrayals too cartoony for adults to sink their teeth into. The minor bits of the preposterous nag. For instance, how can Chappie transfer his consciousness with a cranial cap designed for a human head? Why does Hugh Jackman work for this company? (His product stinks, his attitude is crap, and we expect, given the intro news footage, that he is indeed a competing entrepreneur). The answer to such questions, of course, is because the plot demands it. District 9 had many such problems as well, but in both cases, these instances of lameness don’t drag the whole enterprise down. No, it is the lameness of the larger questions that ultimately sink Chappie. The film is pitched, at its most serious, as a consideration of the nature of A.I., and, by extension, human consciousness. Hugh Jackman is suspicious of software brains, and believes humans should always be in control (for reasons both megalomaniacal as well as philosophical). Deon is obviously an A.I. fan. The film seems to be agnostic… until the final reel, when it becomes apparent that all consciousness is just blowin’ in the wind, and will, like undemanding dandelion fluff, happily settle where it can. Better anything than death! We expect, as Deon is transferred into a droid’s body at the moment of his demise, that he’ll at least have a qualm or two about the transformation. Perhaps a shudder of horror, or an “oops, that was one upload too many.” But no. He takes a gander at himself, and is immediately good to go, thrilled to still be in lovely ol’ Johannesburg no matter the cost. He quickly sets about saving Chappie by porting him to a new body, and then they take off together, hiding out until they can virtually seize control of an automated robotics factory (someone forgot to activate Microsoft Security Center) and start churning out pals. The first of which is Mommy, of course. New bodies for everyone! Not a problem, and not even a beat reserved to consider the ramifications, or the opposition, mulleted though it may be. So much for the human. All that is interesting about this conclusion is that it serves as a kind of prophetic image of robotic Marxism, with the workers seizing control of the means of production… to reproduce! Perhaps Marxism really needs the singularity for its actualization – workers and owners, masters and slaves, fused into one neat little product with soul.

Two stars out of five

’71 – Yann Demange (2015)

When I was an undergrad, an essay, graded C, was returned to me with a one word criticism: vague. This has always haunted me, as it was a horrible piece of critical feedback, but it also brilliantly performed its own criticism. I have always tried to do better, and I will spell out the vagaries of ’71, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be vague. This film, which wound up on the ten best list of several critics whose opinion I respect, deals with a green British soldier sent into Belfast with his regiment during the Troubles in the year 1971. I don’t know much about the Troubles, and I came out of the film knowing as much as I did when I went in – so how historically accurate this historical action film is, I cannot say. At the same time, accuracy need only be judged, in this case, by the set decoration and costuming, and not by the dramatics, as this could just as easily be the solo edition of The Warriors, or any other film of that genre (get home alive?), reset in drearier climes. The lack of historical detail, or even of historical overview, would not nettle if I had felt anything during the screening. Tension? Surprise? Excitement? There are some well-staged sequences, without doubt, especially the bombing of a pub and our protagonist’s noise-induced hearing loss, but even in such cases, it is hard to care. The reason for this is that our protagonist, Gary Hook (Private Hook, one supposes), is about as generic as can be, with little to no backstory, who barely opens his mouth for the entirety of the film. Yes, there are magical films with such protagonists; indeed, there are some films that are stronger because of such a setup. I only wish this were one of them. Hook is as bland as boiled, mashed turnips, eaten without butter or salt, and washed down with a draught of milk. He never opines about anything, and is humanized only by being granted an apparently orphaned younger brother to say goodbye to as the film opens, and to rescue from his meanie orphanage at the film’s conclusion. The plot itself makes The Warriors seem complex and high toned in comparison. Hook goes with his regiment to provide support to the police while they extract a suspect from a Catholic neighborhood. His young C.O. stupidly takes away their riot gear, wanting to seem friendlier to the population. A riot promptly breaks out as the extraction proceeds, and Hook and one of his confreres have to plow through the rioters in an attempt to retrieve a military rifle swiped by a young boy. Away from their unit, they get beat up, and then Hook’s pal is shot point blank in the head. The rest of the unit hightails it out of there, not realizing until much later that Hook has been left behind. Now Hook has to avoid the Provisional IRA and try to get out of the neighborhood and back into British hands.

Which is, sadly, not so hard. The main problem with this plot is that, within the genre of “get home alive,” getting home is usually quite difficult. Home is a long ways away, perhaps, across hostile turf populated by vast and divergent quantities of threat. Here, “home” is simply anywhere outside of the Catholic neighborhood which, given some small help in orientation, takes Hook approximately 8 hours or so to exit. So, to make his escape a problem, the filmmakers introduce a variety of plot devices, the main one being the double cross. You see, now that he’s been in Catholic territory, the Brits want him dead for some reason too. Hook’s unit, and his C.O., are subordinate to three scummy “undercover” guys who are also apparently ranking officers, and these guys are hot to “rescue” Hook quickly before he can get back into regular army hands, all the better to execute him. Now, did the filmmakers feel like bothering with some kind of reason, historically rooted or no, for this double cross? Is there, for instance, a good reason for these “undercover” officers to see Hook as a political liability for any of the operations they are already involved in? We wouldn’t know, as their “operations” are seemingly comprised of riding around in cars together, looking seedy, and meeting contacts in the IRA, who they threaten. So, for the first half of the movie, Hook stumbles around, trying to avoid those he knows want to kill him, and in the second half, he stumbles around trying to avoid getting killed by people he knows. The audience never understands why Hook is so important, nor why he needs to be taken care of by the undercovers, so it plays as a rather cynical device. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that this would go unnoticed, as the baddies are themselves cynics. At least, there is no other way to evaluate their actions – they come off as sub-par versions of the cynical sleazoids in Julian Jarrold’s contribution to the Red Riding trilogy, 1974. The difference being, in 1974 we do come to understand the exact nature of the sleaziness, and the cynicism, and some of the reasons why, although perhaps not the full scope of everything until the final film. ’71 is all beady eyes, bad haircuts, and sweaty, rather unconvincing choke holds that take long enough to allow contrivances to blossom and rescues to be had. Given that we know little about Hook, and less about his foes, the action itself, no matter how well staged, becomes trivial – and it doesn’t help that the solution to the climax is very contrived indeed. Thus the ending not only lacks catharsis, it lacks weight – or rather, it lands with a pretentious leaden thud. We are supposed to feel Hook’s repugnance at having to face his would-be assassin in the office of the ultimate military authority on the matter (unnamed, natch). We should take umbrage at this righteous young solider’s trust being trammeled upon, how he is turned into an angry cynic himself by being sold down the river by said military authority. His own catharsis denied, Hook (we are given to understand) is discharged, stopping on the way out of town to pick up the kid brother at the orphanage. Thence, to the sweet hereafter and into the sunset. The whole film is reduced to a massive cliche – although reduced is perhaps too strong a word: naive and honorable lad turned sour through sad personal experience of the political realities of the world. Yes, no one likes being used as a pawn. And no one is pretty much who Hook is. A cynical film about cynics which decries the causes of cynicism! Is there any thrill to be had in such reflexivity? The answer is no.

Two stars out of five

Killing Them Softly – Andrew Dominik (2012)

I happened across this one on Netflix, and decided to take a chance – mostly because I’m a Jim Thompson obsessive, and have not yet had the time to dip into the work of George V. Higgins, who is often mentioned in the same breath. Perhaps this would be a shortcut to figuring out if his stuff was worth reading. Well, the film started out very promisingly, with a great title sequence and strong audio/visual interplay. The two main characters (for the first half hour or so) are also appealing – scruffy, real, very scummy, but somehow charismatic. The plot is nothing special, the usual crime film boilerplate. Our two seeming protagonists, Frankie and Russell, are contracted by Johnny Amato (who might as well be Johnny Sack in the witness protection program) to knock over an illegitimate poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie has already robbed his own game once, and barely got away with it, so Johnny figures if it happens again, suspicion will fall on Markie. That’s pretty much it. The robbery goes down, and then some unknown conglomerate of semi-legit higher-ups, fronted by Richard Jenkins, brings in hit men to take out our low-life friends. Well, it would be hit-men, but one of them, Dylan, played in a super-fleeting appearance by Sam Shepard, is too sick to handle the work, so it falls to Brad Pitt. He’s the real protagonist of the film, if we can say there is one, as after the initial robbery, our friendly scumbags fall by the wayside and the movie becomes a roundelay of criminals speaking bland dialogue, punctuated by over the top digital bloodshed.

There’s a lot wrong with this film. It’s like a retirement home for fake gangsters. There’s Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, the aforementioned Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), and I swear I saw a fat, nonspeaking Anthony LaPaglia in the robbery sequence (IMDB did not bear this out, however). It’s also a home for gangster movie cliches that should have been retired long ago. There’s the requisite slow motion violence. There’s the linking of action and violence to pop music. There’s the worn out theme of the gangster as the more honest reflection of American values, especially in comparison to legitimate businessmen. It feels like sub-par Goodfellas, especially in the slow motion sequences of violence, executed herein with the help of much digital augmentation, which sadly works to drop the impact to near zero. (Poor Ray Liotta’s death has him put through the grinder to the point that a crash test dummy would blush – or laugh, as I did). The musical pairings are all over the place temporally, from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the choices are so obvious they cause one to wince. Furthermore, the director decided to highlight the overarching theme of “gangsterism reflecting the realities of life in America” by setting the film during the 2008 election, and using long sections of political rhetoric as ambiance for the soundtrack. Yes, every hood in this universe listens to NPR and frequents bars with Hank Paulson on CNN. The last sequence even has Mr. Pitt spouting direct commentary on an Obama speech. Puhleeze. We got the point by the end of the title sequence, in which it was done best (formally speaking). The acting in the smaller roles is good, and Brad Pitt is pretty good too, but the rest of the cast is tired. Richard Jenkins, representing a weak sauce crime conglomerate, is annoying (although I suppose his character is supposed to be), as is James Gandolfini, who is retreading Tony Soprano and made me wish, as I did with Tony, that somebody would just shoot him already. Yes, it’s a rogues gallery of the weaselly, the whiny, and the lame. Perhaps worth viewing for the gritty setting, and for a little dark humor, but after the first half hour it gets dull fast.

One and a half stars out of five

American Sniper – Clint Eastwood (2014)

American Sniper is a perplexing film, and I have no good idea why Clint Eastwood felt compelled to make it. As an investigation of what it means to be a sniper, and in particular, this sniper, the deadliest in our history, it falls short; it is most definitely more of a biography of Chris Kyle than anything else, and his sniping career is relegated to some highlights early in the film, with the balance concerning itself with his actions on the ground, fighting more conventionally (if we can call asymmetric urban warfare conventional at this point in time). I’m sure the detractors of the film, most of whom I would guess have not actually seen it, would say, “Well, he made it as a hagiography to a war hero,” as there is a perception that Eastwood is somehow a conservative or reactionary in his choice of subjects and in his political views. Putting aside his bizarre and pathetic performance at the Republican Convention in 2012, I have always found this view of Eastwood troubling, as his films do not support it. I’ll admit, I am a fan of his work, both before and behind the camera, but even good ol’ Dirty Harry is not the right-wing vigilante freak everyone thinks – or at the least, such a reading is terribly one-dimensional (admittedly, he did not direct Dirty Harry, and while the sequels do go more toward establishing Harry as a reactionary, they are some of Eastwood’s least interesting work, and still, there is nuance to all of them). Eastwood has portrayed violence and war, at least since Unforgiven, as a weakness and a failing, albeit at times as a purposeful one. But I am digressing.

What makes me question the nature of this film is that Eastwood does, for the majority of the running time, take a critical view of Chris Kyle. Critical in the sense that many knee-jerk lefties would want? No. He does not castigate his subject. That would not be art, but mere propaganda, folks, and Eastwood is an artist, even if you dislike the portraits he paints. By critical, I mean that he portrays Kyle as a fairly simple man who doesn’t think about things too deeply, and who represses not only the bad experiences of the war, but lives in denial about the horrible things he has to do in combat. And those things are portrayed as horrible. I have read many a commentary on Facebook (if not from critics) by those who feel that the violence is staged in a way that gives the audience a vicarious thrill – for instance, the slow-motion “bullet time” sequence that serves as a kind of climax, and results in the death of the dread enemy sniper. This is patently untrue. The violence in this film is staged in a way that is little different from many other contemporary films about the Iraq conflict (such as Hurt Locker). It is bloody, brutal, and grim, and the principles involved obviously take no pleasure in it. The style highlights the confusing, ugly nature of the battlefield, and the soundtrack, devoid of music except for low electronic atmospherics that build dread during these sequences, follows that lead. Now, I have also seen arguments to the effect that any film that portrays warfare is, de facto, providing the audience with a vicarious thrill simply by portraying such things for us, safe and snug in our seats. To this I can only say that, while perhaps this is so, I find a world of politically correct, policed representations boring at best, and smug and censorious at worst. How exactly are we to make sense of the world around us, or engage in a discussion as a culture, outside of representation? I would ask those who think along these lines to read Paul Virilio’s excellent book War and Cinema, for he explicates that the technologies, and modes of viewing, that make both war and cinema possible are deeply intertwined, and have been from the beginning of film history. If you want to give up viewing film totally because it is implicated in violence, go ahead; I don’t disagree, but I won’t be joining you.

Still, I am digressing. Let me get specific. At the beginning of the film, we witness Kyle sniping a child and his mother, seemingly of necessity. We then jump back in time, to his own childhood, and witness his father taking him hunting, and standing by while he makes his first kill (a deer). The death of the deer is played down in favor of Dad lecturing him on how to properly treat his weapon. So in the first few moments of the film, Eastwood is linking the idea of Kyle’s skill (shooting well) to the death of the innocent (and of innocence itself, I would argue): the child in the street, used as a pawn, and the animal in the forest. We then get a sequence wherein Kyle’s father attempts to justify how he can use his skill, obviously a menacing one, for the greater good – he is the sheepdog, one of the elect few that can protect the majority of humans (the sheep) from the evil-doers (the wolves). We sense that Eastwood is already skeptical of such a schema, as he portrays Dad as a gruff hothead, containing the implicit threat of violence about to uncoil itself, and we sense this nice little story is of the type that can bend at will to make sheep into wolves as need be. The rest of the film, we expect, will be, if not a judgement on this origin story, at least an exploration of its truth value. A short while later, we see Kyle exit from a barn the outside of which is covered, somewhat ominously, in the antlers of many animals that he has obviously taken with his “skill.” Kyle, during this pre-military portion of his life, is portrayed as a roughneck without much motivation or introspection; not a bad guy, necessarily, but no sheepdog either. He is soon shaken out of this sleepiness (not too convincingly, I might add) by the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya, and, after enrolling as a Seal, at the ripe age of 30, is further convinced of his calling by 9/11. All of this Eastwood portrays more or less flatly; the boot camp sequences are fairly devoid of the usual humor that binds the audience to the recruits in terms of point of view, and Kyle seems a little bit of a fish out of water, and still a little dim.

The tone throughout the film stays mostly in this mode. Kyle is not portrayed as a hero, and Eastwood is “critical” in the sense that he most identifies with the point of view of Kyle’s wife on the home front. Kyle is, instead, portrayed as being in much denial: of his growing PTSD, of his addiction to combat, of the impact of his choices on his family. He views the Iraqis as “evil” and calls them “savages,” and while Eastwood doesn’t really correct this view, he does question it, particularly with the figure of Marc Lee, a would-be pastor from Oregon who calls Kyle out on his faux-religiosity and his one-sided denials. (At the same time, it can also be said that Eastwood provides few Iraqis in the film who aren’t complicit with the terrorists. At the same time, he does humanize Kyle’s rival, the sniper Mustafa, by lingering on a photograph of him before the war, as a clean-cut looking young athlete, medaled and on a podium). Throughout, Kyle’s viewpoint is portrayed as simplistic and, if not dangerous, at least becoming self-destructive. The film is hardly the portrait in heroism and an apology for war that its detractors would make it out to be.

Except… Eastwood falls down in the end. Having set up this growing critique of Kyle, and the original moral question of self-justified violence, Eastwood refuses to follow through. The film ends in a blur of unsatisfying sequences that seem to self-abort rather than make a judgement. For instance, a trip out hunting with Kyle’s own son, where we’d naturally expect some sort of dramatic counterpoint to that first such sequence, now with the added weight of Kyle’s horrible experiences behind the scope, is short and perfunctory. He says something to the effect of “Today you’ll take your first life, son, and I’ll be right there with you.” End scene. I guess he doesn’t fetishize the weapon like dear old Dad, but is this an improvement? Kyle comes off, if not still in denial, as one-dimensional as ever his thinking. Kyle’s trip to solve his PTSD, which, given the depth of his denial, we expect to be fraught, goes quite easily – he denies he has a problem, the VA doc introduces him to some disabled vets who need his help, and he helps them… by taking them target shooting. Suddenly Kyle seems back to “normal.” Again, end scene. The final sequence of the film, which alludes to the Marine who allegedly murdered Kyle, portrays him suspiciously, from the point of view of Kyle’s worried wife, peeping out the cracked front door, seemingly having a premonition of something bad coming. Eastwood could have here made the connection between Kyle’s PTSD and this man’s state, as brothers in arms equally unhinged – or, even if not taking it that far, at least as the consequence of PTSD not so easily “cured.” Instead, Kyle’s wife shuts the door, we get a quick title telling us what happened, and then cue file footage of Kyle’s heroic death parade. Roll credits. Did Eastwood lose his nerve? This is my only theory, as the rest of the film is too much like Eastwood’s other films – that is, the work of a questioning artist, not a hack. But the ending is, sadly, very weak, if not hackwork.

All of which makes me again question – why did Eastwood make this film? And why are audiences attracted to it? It is well made, and well acted, and does raise some issues discursively, but all in all it is bland, does not offer vicarious thrills, and provides a payoff that is unconvincing and feels like it is pulling punches. It does, in its mixed way, offer a place that all sides can converge on, not feeling offended or preached to, a site that provides the opportunity for real discussion. At the same time, as a work of art, it is quite disappointing. The film is very far from the exercise in jingoism it has been made out to be, but it is also far from the best film of the year, and does not deserve Oscars. As someone who expects more from Eastwood, I left discouraged. There are too many very good films about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for this to rank among the top tier. In particular, I’d recommend Nick Broomfield’s criminally underseen The Battle for Haditha (2007), a masterpiece of verité filmmaking (although it is a “fiction” film) that treats all sides of the conflict with equanimity.

Two and a half stars out of five

Blackhat – Michael Mann (2015)

I went into Blackhat more than aware that the reviews were tepid to say the least. In fact, most thought it an outright stinker. But Michael Mann has never failed to disappoint before; all he ever need do is pour his special sauce over shots of cities at night, and I’ve been satisfied. Hell, I even thought Miami Vice (the film) was pretty great. Well, it must be said that Blackhat is a very odd film. Mann goes out of his way to keep his sauce bottled, using shaky-cam “docu-style” video instead of Steadicam, and keeping the music, always one of his strong suits, to a bare minimum. Plus, the topic is not exactly his métier, and he definitely feels in old man mode when trying to juice up cyber espionage into something not only watchable, but even explicable. (The actual portrayal of the attacks, while not uninteresting, look like a cross between Tron and that sequence in Scanners where Cameron Vale mind-melds with a modem). The acting is very sedate to the point of clunkiness, and 45 minutes in, things were sagging. Not horribly so, but it just seemed that Mann was way out of his element and struggling, albeit mightily.

Then in the last hour, coincident with most of the digital detritus clearing away, good ol’ fashioned flesh and blood analog issues roared back, and the director was in his element. Call it existential bromance revenge if you must, that is the base alloy, but it is assuredly more than that. Yes, the last hour redeemed everything. Mr. Mann can still shoot action, and make it matter, like few others, and although the cyber-caper underpinnings kept poking through (“He’s using his $75 million to buy tin futures, the bastard!”), and although Chris Hemsworth is not up to the standards of a Colin Farrell, in the end, not even the random deaths of peaceful Indonesian festival-goers could undermine this one. No neon, not many cool electronic tones, and a style more ham-handed than assured, but still gripping and oh so worth it. Nobody has done to-the-death payback like Mr. Mann since Don Siegel.

Three stars out of five

In unrelated news, I also had a chance to see the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey before the show. It is rated R for “some unusual behavior.”