Thor: Ragnarok (2017), or Thor and the Amazing Technicolor Marvelverse

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of seeing the third installment in Marvel's Thor series. Directed by Taika Waititi of What We Do in the Shadows fame, Thor: Ragnarok has almost everyone head over heels with delight. And they've got good reason to be. Ragnarok is hilarious. From its absurd settings, colorful cast of characters, and heart-wrenching ending, this film is sure to please fans of the MCU and nab a few naysayers along the way. Read More

Movie Review Rant : Catching Fire (2013)

As I write this sentence, Catching Fire (2013), the sequel to The Hunger Games (2012), is encroaching upon the $700mil box office mark.  It's a huge film, and there are a lot of things to love about it.

Before I get to my rant/review, here are a couple quick notes:

  1. I hadn't read the book when I saw the movie, so the reactions below will jump back and forth between placing the film in relation to the book and treating the film on its own terms.
  2. There are spoilers.
  3. Nothing is in any sort of order here.  Like my post on Riddick (2013), I'll cover everything I feel like talking about as they come to me.
  4. I've discussed some of these things in the Shoot the WISB episode on Catching Fire over at The Skiffy and Fanty Show.
The World and POV Shifts
In the first film, there were a handful of cuts away from the central action to the characters involved behind the scenes:  the gamekeepers, the president, Haymitch, the folks at home, etc.  These served to give us a sense of the world in which these games are a centerpiece.  The problem with The Hunger Games was its inability to rationalize the system of oppression that made the games possible.  There were certainly attempts, but in the end you either had to accept the status quo or give up any possibility of immersion.

Catching Fire does a decent job rectifying this problem.  For one, it centralizes President Snow as the actual and real villain.  In the first film, the Capitol and the other players in the game were all potential villains, but here, Snow is never anything but.  From his first interactions with Katniss to the cut scenes showing him planning her torture and eventual defeat, Snow is the adversary the film has always needed:  he's the face of all that is wrong with the Capitol.  For me, Snow provided the rationalization for the world that I needed.  His interest in oppression is partly about power, but it is also about his own myths about what revolution entails, such that preserving those myths and power structures becomes more important than considering the implications of one's actions.  Snow, as such, continues to exert his authority -- a largely dictatorial and malignant one -- to preserve the system and to make sure nobody has the means or the will to challenge it.  The Hunger Games are simply a means to an end:  they're a reminder of the past and a reminder of the power Snow/the Capitol wields.

A lot of the scenes that best express Snow's justifications for his brutality are in his interactions with his granddaughter, who appears to become entranced by the symbolic rebellion of Katniss.  Presumably, she doesn't understand what is happening in Panem, but the threat is there for Snow nonetheless:  if his own family can be turned against him, his ability to maintain order will be permanently compromised.  It's a nice touch, as it would be too easy just to make Snow a vile, disgusting bag of skin, as he appears to be in the books.  Here, there are little hints of humanity in play, and so he becomes even more horrifying as a villain the more we realize how human he really is.
Likewise, the POV shifts are generally a good thing.  They give us an impression of the world, its logic, etc.  They also show us things we otherwise don't get to see in the book, which helps the film avoid the problem of having no viable method to display Katniss' internal struggles.  The problem with these shifts, however, is in their unnecessary ability to trick us as viewers, which I'll get into in the next section.

WANTED:  Clues That Logically Lead to X
There are two main issues with the structure of the film.  The second of these I'll discuss in the section below on endings; the first I'll cover here.

One of the new central characters is gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  At the end of Catching Fire, it is revealed to us that he, Haymitch, and several of the tributes have been conspiring to extricate Katniss from the games so she can remain the symbol for the upcoming revolution.  But unlike the book, which leaves a great number of clues as to Plutarch's true allegiances, the film simply discards most of those clues for a shocking reveal.  This works in the book for one reason:  we're in Katniss' head the whole time.  But the book gives us plenty of clues.  It makes it clear that there's something fishy going on, even if Katniss hasn't quite figured it out yet.  The shock in the book, as such, is measured by revelation:  so that's what all those clues are about.

In the film, most of those clues are gone.  For all intents and purposes, we're supposed to believe Plutarch is just like everyone else in the Capitol, albeit perhaps more macabre than the average flashy Capitol-ite.  But almost every scene involving Plutarch doesn't give us the impression that he's actually one of the good guys, as he spends most of his time trying to convince President Snow that X method is the best way to destroy Katniss as person and revolutionary image.  His ideas are, in retrospect, not terribly good, but they are, in the moment, convincing in their brutality.  The shocking reveal, however, doesn't have the benefit of proper foreshadowing or retrospective revelation, despite a good chunk of the film taking place outside of Katniss' perspective.  And without that benefit, Plutarch's apparent heroism is incomprehensible as a consequence of the plot, and, thus, neutered.  Were we supposed to hate Plutarch in the end as Katniss does, or find something redeemable in him?

Thankfully, this issue doesn't affect the allied tributes.  There are enough moments where Finnick and Johanna hint that something else is going on, giving Katniss and the audience a moment to consider what that something might be.  If only the same had been true of Plutarch.

Jennifer Lawrence Rocks
To say that Lawrence delivers a superb performance in this film is really just an attempt to say something we already know.  She's an exceptional actress, and she brings a great deal of emotional diversity to her reprised role.  That's no small feat when you consider that she doesn't have the benefit of internal monologue, which means we never get a clear sense of what is going on in the character's head (something the book gives us in droves); she has to show us.
Though I obviously have opinions on the ending, I also think the final shot (a closeup of Lawrence's face) is one of the more sure examples of the toll this world has had on the character of Katniss.  You can see the different emotions rolling through her face; she begins as visibly saddened, weaving swiftly through the stages of grief, until finally her sadness morphs into contempt and anger.  Then the film cuts out.  If the ending itself were actually about Katniss' emotional shift, it could have ended on this scene without issue.  This is what we've been waiting for, after all:  Katniss is going to war.

But I'll get to a discussion of the ending later.  Here, I'm concerned with Lawrence.  And she's exceptional.  Frankly, Lawrence really carries this movie, which makes the nearly $700mil box office tag all the more exciting.  Perhaps we'll see more films with female action leads in the near future.  Big films with lots of attitude.

Women
If you've seen The Hunger Games, then you have a good sense of the main characters here.  Regardless, I think it is worth noting that, unlike other female protagonists or sidekicks in so many films of any genre, the female characters here are fascinating, even if they are only on screen for a short period of time.  Some of those characters are also quite complex, revealing their layers over time.
From the aggressive, "don't give two shits" Johanna to the deceptively mindless and emotionally removed Effie to the reluctant but capable hero in Katniss, this film gives us a lot to work with when it comes to its female characters.  There's also the rather motherly Mags, who doesn't actually get to say anything in this film; yet, her bravery and kindness in action define her in ways that I think are quite significant in relation to the other characters.  Her relationship with the rude and lecherous Finnick, for example, provides a human dimension to her fellow male tribute, such that we're able to put trust in someone we previously thought would seek to harm our original heroes.  Though I wish we could have received more from Mags, I still loved her as one of many quite different women in this film.

(And, yes, it passes the Bechdel test, too, as female characters frequently discuss things that don't have anything to do with a boy; when they do talk about boys, it is frequently not about romantic entanglements, but salvation and violence.)
All of this led me to remark the some nights ago that it would be awesome if someone would make an Expendables-style film with an almost exclusive female action star cast.  That film is coming.

The point is this:  whatever flaws the film may have, it is a film where women are prominent players in a good portion of the action.  This is not to suggest that it is a perfect portrayal, but success shouldn't be judged by the absurd standard of perfection anyway.

PTSD Lite
I didn't honestly expect the creators of this film to actually address what seemed quite obvious to me after the first film:  these kids are going to be fucked up.  But they did.  Personally, I think they might have done more with the PTSD subplot, as a few bad dreams really doesn't cover it, but it was clear after twenty minutes of film that this was never going to be about the ramifications of the Hunger Games in the personal lives of the victors.  I think that's unfortunate, as actually addressing this issue with some emotional depth would lend credibility to the world.

Still, for a film meant, oddly enough, for younger crowds, it is rather poignant to address the consequences of violent confrontation, especially since we live in a time of sort-of-not-really-over-war.  If it had done so with greater focus, such as was done in Iron Man 3 (differently, of course), it might have added depth to Katniss' character and provided a more cogent rational for her initial refusal to get involved in the ensuing rebellion.  This is something that the book handles well due to the strict focus on Katniss' POV.  One scene in particular involves Peeta's post-games "talent," which all victors are basically required to share with the Capitol.  In Peeta's case, he paints, but his paintings are all from his nightmares of the games, which Katniss initially finds horrifying; soon, however, she recognizes their value:  they are a cathartic release for Peeta.  His greater sensitivity to the pressures of violence are partly responsible for leading Katniss and Haymitch to the conclusion that they must save Peeta -- granted, they also want to save him because he possesses a particular charm that might be useful later (Katniss recognizes that revolution is coming and that she will be a part of it quite early in the novel) and because, well, he's just "good."  Such a scene could have given the characters a moment to discuss their troubles, and it would likely have helped solidify the friendship that begins to develop in this film.
Endings
This film lacks an ending.  It just...ends.  While I appreciated the idea of Katniss destroying the arena and even the idea that this final act of rebellion within the terms of the capital would lead inexorably to an actual revolution, I still could not help finding the cliffhanger "look, the revolution has come" ending ineffective.  For one, it comes out of nowhere.  Katniss wakes up in a hovercraft to find that Plutarch, Haymitch, and Finnick have been conspiring to start a rebellion using her as a figurehead; she flips out, wakes up in a room with Gale looking over her, and we're told "hey, the revolution has come, District 12 ain't there no more, and...yeah...good times."  That's where it ends.

For me, all middle films have to leave some questions unanswered, but not the questions most pertinent to the film in question.  The conclusion to The Empire Strikes Back is anything but complete in the larger scheme:  Han has been kidnapped; Luke has failed to defeat Darth Vader; the rebels have gotten their asses handed to them; and there's a lot left to be done.  Empire, however, is complete in terms of its self-contained plot:  all of those things I just mentioned were conclusions to events specific to this film.  But unlike Empire, Catching Fire never defines the terms of the next engagement, nor does it conclude all of its self-contained plot elements.  It drops us in a moment which is decontextualized and abstract.  Revolution has come, but we don't really know what that means, particularly if we're to accept the fact that District 12 has been wiped off the map in a matter of days (at most).  There is no explanation for the absence of many of the characters -- presumably, most of them are dead, but it's never an issue that gets discussed in any depth.  All we're told is:  the revolution has started.
It's that absence of a denouement which makes this a weaker film than the first.  Like Matrix Reloaded, we're thrust into an entirely different world, but not one which has a basis or development out of something else.  Part of the problem, I think, is the structure of the other parts of the film; if the end result is the beginning of a revolution, it seems to me that the film needs to more accurately foreshadow this moment so the shocking revelation for Katniss need not be so shocking for us.  Shock is cheap.  It works once, but after you've seen it a few times, it loses its value.   But being able to piece together the clues in a concrete fashion adds something to the game.  We don't have that here.  There are breadcrumbs, sure, but their meaning doesn't naturally end with "revolution."

Conclusions
Overall, I enjoyed the film.  I thought it was stronger than the first until the end, and I appreciated the clearer villains and attempts to rationalize the world, even if this whole system still doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  The biggest flaw for me, obviously, was the ending.  I particularly despise middle films that end on cliffhangers, which might explain why I initially despised the second Matrix film.  All films must end in some capacity, even if their unanswered questions will be continued elsewhere.  Still, if you haven't seen it, you should do so before it leaves theaters for good.  Doing so supports an otherwise solid franchise and the possibility of more strong female leads like Katniss Everdeen -- plus, it's a glowing endorsement of Jennifer Lawrence, who I adore.

So that's what I have to say on that.  For now...

--------------------------------------------------

Directing: 4/5
Cast:  4.5/5
Writing:  3/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation: 3.5/5
Overall:  3.8/5 (76%)
Inflated Grade:  B (for solid acting, a stronger narrative thrust than the previous film, solid visuals, and suspense)
Value:  $9.00 (based on $10.50 max)

Semi Movie Review: Ironclad (Historical Revisionism of the Worst Sort)

Have you seen Ironclad?  It stars Paul Giamatti as King John of England and James Purefoy as Thomas Marshall, a Templar Knight (Purefoy, by the way, seems to have had a role in at least 3/4ths of the medieval-era-ish film productions released in the last 6 or so years, which is impressive).  If you haven't, you're probably not missing anything you didn't see in Braveheart.

It's not a bad movie by itself, mind you.  A little on the long side at two hours, sure.  But as a film, it has a lot going for it.  Decent acting, a plot that makes internal sense, and a narrative that balances between all out war (there will be blood!) and the rigors of attrition.  If this were set in the mythical kingdom of Genland, with the plot centered on King Hojn's use of Adnish mercenaries to reclaim his throne from the wicked barons who forced him to sign the Namga Artac, then it would be an interesting movie with lots of parallels to England's medieval history.

But that's not what this film is about.  You see, in this version of history, King John doesn't successfully take Rochester Castle from an entrenched baronial force.  Rather, the French
magically show up and he's forced to trudge out into the marshes of England trailing his treasure (which is mysteriously lost), after which he dies of dysentery.  Thus the heroes are saved!  Oh merciful heavens our surviving heroes can go on to live their lives in sin!  Yes, sin.  You know why?  Because Thomas Marshall violates his religious codes of conduct as a Knight Templar by not only sleeping with a woman (abstinence!), but with a woman married to another man.  This results in said woman explaining how important it is for Thomas to live life.  Oh!  He must live it by committing a cardinal sin!

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying sex out of wedlock or adultery is evil or even sinful in my mind.  But we're not talking about the world I live in.  We're talking about 13th century England.  Now, I don't want to suggest here that nobody was breaking religious law back then.  I'm sure the Knights Templar were quite good and putting their willies where they shouldn't (according to their religious rules).  But we're told in this story that these vows are supremely important to Thomas.  Not just important, but so damned important that he spends the entire movie resisting temptation of one form or another, claiming the moral high ground alongside others with less strict religious rules.  And all this is destroyed by a single woman.  If any story could make it more clear to us that the serpent of the Bible lives in the loins of the female human, this is the one.

But I suppose that's me reading a lot into a movie within a film tradition in which religious "rules" really only mean a lot when it comes to who you marry and who you behead.
The real problem with this movie is that it gets its history so terribly wrong as to be dangerous.  Let's toss aside the fact that somehow our hero has resisted wicked temptation his whole life, the criminal use of modern phrases, and the strange logical gap between the importance of Rochester Castle (it controls everything in London and is ever so crucial to King John's campaign -- this is actually true) and the suspicious absence of anything resembling a defensive force in the castle itself (you can count the number of soldiers/archers/defenders on your hands and feet and still have digits left over).  Let's just talk about the utter failure on the part of Jonathan English (ha!), Erick Kastel, and Stephen McDool to write a story that resembles the actual event.

Let's take, for a moment, the glorious inadequacy of these writers, shall we?  The BBC website says the following of the battle Ironclad attempts to depict:
King John lay siege to the castle in 1215 and took it after two long months. He finally undermined the south east tower and burned the props with the "fat of forty pigs" causing the tower to collapse. The city was well placed for raids on London and it also enabled them to devastate the lands of Kent, particularly those belonging to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus and was therefore Odo's and the rebels' enemy.
Short, but sweet.  The English Heritage website adds a few more details:
In 1215, garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John. Having first undermined the outer wall, John used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep, bringing its southern corner crashing down. Even then the defenders held on, until they were eventually starved out after resisting for two months.
What's that?  The French didn't show up and send King John packing at Rochester Castle?  Really?  You mean our heroes lost by starvation, thus surrendering after an understandably brave months-long fight?  The only thing Ironclad gets correct in the above description is that King John used the fat of forty pigs (sappers!) to cause the tower to collapse.  But most everything else -- the order of events, the players, etc. -- falls apart when under simple scrutiny.  There's no city.  No cathedral.  No indication that anyone actually lives near Rochester Castle, which is unusual when you think about the film's logic:  this is such a strategic point for taking the country, and yet nobody seems to live in the bizarre wasteland around the castle (there's no farmland either).  Not for miles!  And we're given some beautiful shots of England countryside to prove this!

Even Wiki-frakking-pedia points out where Ironclad fails miserably:
William d'Aubigny commanded the garrison but contemporary chroniclers do not agree on how many men that was. Estimates range from 95 to 140 knights supported by crossbowmen, sergeants, and others.[9] John did take the castle, most of the higher nobles being imprisoned or banished; and the French did not arrive in England until some six months after the siege had ended.[10] Characters departing significantly from the historical record include William d'Aubigny who was not an ennobled wool merchant (nor was he tortured and killed in the siege).
You'll notice the citation numbers.  Those two citations happen to come from fairly reputable sources:  Rochester Castle by Reginald Allen Brown (a guidebook from the English Heritage folks) and David Hume's The History of England.  That's right:  David frakking Hume.  But in Ironclad, a ragtag group of six "warriors" show up to "take" Rochester Castle and then defend it with the ragtag group of folks living inside.  And d'Aubigny has his feet and hands cut off and his body chucked from an improvised catapult into the side of the keep.  And John has a happy time with murdering those few nobles he gets his hands on in the film.

Odd how those little details managed to slip the writers' minds.  But why?  Isn't the very idea of defending a castle from a superior force already an exciting and dramatic story?  Couldn't they have told that story?  Did they have to have the French roll in early and save the day?  Deus ex machina!

Maybe I'm asking too much from my medieval movies.  Maybe becoming and academic has soured me to historical fiction.  I don't know.  What I do know is that this kind of crap annoys the hell out of me.  I want my historical fiction to at least get the major facts correct.  Otherwise, you might as well be writing alternate history...

Sadly, Ironclad neither gets the facts right nor does it succeed as an alternate history.  It's a film that historians of the period can watch only if they've had a lobotomy performed by a chimpanzee with a hot poker.  Even then, brain seizures are likely...

Directing: 2.5/5 (there are some weird moments where people seem to be doing something different when there are perspective shifts)
Cast: 3/5 (decent enough)
Writing: 1/5 (I don't reword stupidity)
Visuals: 2.5/5 (CG blood = idiotic)
Adaptation: 0.5/5 (it gets half a point for being correct about the fact that a siege took place)
Overall: 1.9/5

---------------------------------------------------------

Disclaimer #1:  I do not have a problem with artistic license.  Fiddling with minor details to add a little drama is fine by me, so long as the actual history remains relatively unchanged.

Disclaimer #2:  I am not a medieval history major, but I am one of those silly academics who has some vague idea how to research basic history to figure out whether something is true.