Archive for June, 2012

The Grey (2012)

Starring- Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, Nonso Anozie, James Badge Dale, Ben Bray, Anne Openshaw

Director- Joe Carnahan

R- violence/disturbing content including bloody images, and for pervasive language

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRWF4cepn8U

“The Grey” presents me with a conundrum, though not one that’s entirely new. It’s an extremely well made movie from nearly every perspective, and yet, I have difficulty recommending it to anyone other than a very specific type of person—a specific type of person you probably won’t know you are until you’ve seen it.

I have encountered this type of thing before, and it’s had me questioning the idea that there’s such a thing as a “good” movie or a “bad” movie, except in the most extreme of cases.

For example, you may not have gotten this impression from my review of it, but I don’t necessarily think of “The Help” as being a bad film. It’s not at all a great one, make no mistake whatsoever about that, but it basically has story, character, and wit in enough of the right places to make it an entertaining piece. I disliked it not because it was badly made, necessarily, but because its thematic content aggravated me. Is it bad?

Or, on the flip side, what about “War Horse”? It’s far from the best movie ever, leaning heavily on clichés and trademark Spielberg sentimentality. But I liked what it was trying to say, and I liked how it said it. Is it, then, good?

I’m having this general reaction to “The Grey.” It is very, very good, far better than it ought to be, considering the director’s last outing was the un-masterpiece “The A-Team.” If anything, had “The A-Team” come out after “The Grey,” I might’ve considered it Joe Carnahan’s “John Carter”—bad in ways that are totally the opposite of past successes. “The Grey” is a profound correction of everything that was wrong with “The A-Team”—and it’s also an entirely different film. It was advertised as “Liam Neeson Punches Wolves in the Face: The Motion Picture.” I should take a moment now to assure you that this never once actually occurs within the film. In fact, it’s not even an action movie.

What we really have is a survival drama, and a dark and realistic one at that. “Gritty” doesn’t even begin to describe it; “disturbing” would be far more accurate. It has a philosophical side, too, and that’s the part that I’m finding somewhat unsettling.

It starts out on an oilrig in the remote Alaskan wilderness. Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a hired gun, there at the facility to keep unpleasant wildlife, especially wolves, as far away as possible.

With winter setting in, the employees all board a single plane heading for Anchorage. En route, the plane flies into a storm and crashes violently. When Ottway comes to, he is one of only eight survivors—seven, once another of them succumbs to mortal wounds.

The seven of them, fearing that no help will ever come for them in so distant a place, decide to head out on their own and try to make it to civilization.

Unfortunately, the plane crashed near a wolf den, and the wolves are none too happy to find these strangers intruding upon their territory…

“The Grey” is, again, of far better make than one would expect. Perhaps it’s the fact that “The A-Team” was my first exposure to Joe Carnahan, thus biasing me against him. It may also be related to the fact that Liam Neeson has not been making the wisest film choices these days. Either way, it represents both individuals—and many of the others involved in the production as well—at their best.

The direction is spot-on, in fact quite the opposite of what was seen in “The A-Team.” The herky-jerky handheld camera style does make a return appearance here; however, “The Grey” stands out as one of the few times that it felt like an enhancement of the film, drawing out its realism and giving the entire thing a rugged edge. It feels much more moderated and deliberate, much more a product of its environment than a product of a cameraman giving himself carpal tunnel syndrome.

More surprising is the patience of the film’s direction. While not necessarily a horror film, it is nevertheless far scarier than, say, “The Woman in Black,” and a lot of that comes from its use of silences and long, unbroken shots. It is perhaps not a terrifying film, but it is a very tense one, and it owes a lot to its style. Even when things are not frightening or tense—which is rare—the direction stays slow and deliberate, allowing the actors to work and the imagery to sink in. The cinematography is really spectacular, capturing in full the terror and beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.

All of it allows Liam Neeson to deliver some of his best work in years. Granted, he is still fully in Liam Neeson mode, but at least this time, he appears to be experiencing subtle and complex emotions. Ottway is a tragic character, burdened by a painful past and a hopeless future. He is guarded and rarely breaks, but when he does, it’s sold wholesale.

The impact of the rest of the cast varies based on screen-time. It’s definitely true that a few of them are clearly just there to serve as bodies for the wolves to snack on. However, the film takes an admirable amount of time and care in developing these characters. The majority of them start out as stereotypes, but they reveal hidden depths as the film progresses. Diaz (Frank Grillo) starts out as the token survival horror antagonist character, generally getting in the way, behaving selfishly, and opposing the hero at every turn. But it turns out first to be a mask for fear, and then a mask for his own sense of insignificance. By the time the film has reached its final four, all of them have become realistic, deep, and compelling in their own way.

If there’s any problem here—and this needs to be discussed eventually—it’s that the film’s grittiness and assumed realism only make its stretches in plausibility all the more glaring. It’s the wolves themselves that are a problem. They are essentially magic. It’s hard not to view them as sentient past a certain point. They are extremely intelligent, apparently have a lot of structure in their movements, and seem to be running a fear campaign against the humans the likes of which would be the envy of most real-world despots. At a certain point, I realized that my fear of them was akin to my fear of the Black Riders in “Lord of the Rings” more so than that of a group of wild animals behaving like, well, wild animals. This is perhaps the film’s most glaring flaw, and yet, it is not so unsettling as its message.

“The Grey” is one of two things, both of them entirely contradictory. It is either a deeply and hopelessly nihilistic film, or it is reaffirming both of hope and faith in the face of darkness. Which it is comes down almost entirely to your interpretation of its somewhat ambiguous ending. (Yes, I saw the post-credits sequence, and yes, I will contend that it is ambiguous as well.)

Throughout, the film has two themes that crop up occasionally: human beings facing mortality and trying to sort it out, and the existence and/or nature of God. Of the final four survivors, two seem to take a hopeful approach, that God is real, that all of their fallen friends are in a better place, and that they survived that crash for a reason. Two disagree; Ottway is one of them. They point out that their other friends, taken by the wolves, survived that crash as well.

Ottway persistently recites a poem written by his deceased father, one that contains the following line: “Live and die on this day.” He cites it repeatedly, once when facing down the wolves and once, early on, when apparently contemplating suicide. It seems to be his philosophy that this life is all that there is, and one must go out of it fighting.

Another survivor comes to a similar conclusion, though not quite. This life is all there is, and his is pretty terrible. Even if he survives the wilderness, so what? When the wolves come again, he lies down and lets them take him. “When is it ever going to be better than this?” he asks. What is the point of working to survive, and surviving to work some more? What is the point of living if you don’t really live?

   In a moment of desperation, Ottway begins cursing at the heavens and demanding divine intervention—now, not later. When no answer comes, he resolves to do it himself. He then goes to face down the wolves alone.

In the end, it’s unclear exactly what the result is. However, based on the evidence, my own personal conclusion is that this, again, is a very nihilistic film. It might not be, but its philosophy simply seems to point in that direction. So, what’s being said here?

Everything is pointless. It’s all random chance. There is nothing watching out for us. Life is, as some of the classical atheistic thinkers said, absurd. It’s not the atheism that is the source of my objection, but rather the film’s refusal to find any hope, peace, or happiness in it—or even to try. It essentially says, “Life is pointless—fight for it anyway.” But why?

I understand that art is sometimes messy. It’s not always, or even usually, something that can be wrapped up neatly with a little bow on top. It’s about expressing what’s inside of you, and depending where you are at different points on your life, sometimes that’s pretty dark and hopeless stuff.

But I also think it can be more. I think art can also be about exploring that dark place in which you find yourself and trying to discern solutions, meaning, or at least some semblance of hope. It is, in that sense, as necessary for the artist as it is for the consumer, perhaps more so. That doesn’t mean you’ll always find the answers. And that certainly doesn’t mean you should lie to yourself, inventing easy and vaguely comforting platitudes, ideas, and endings as so many so-called “feel-good movies” do. But searching for that light can lead you places. I’m not sure “The Grey” ever really bothers to look. It’s too wrapped up in its own grim reality to think that there’s something else to it, even if it’s just what humanity itself brings to the table. “Live,” it says. But what is it living for?

 

-Matt T.

Chronicle (2012)Starring- Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen

Director- Josh Trank

PG-13- intense action and violence, thematic material, some language, sexual content and teen drinking

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Exr5B8DCH4w

Shortly on the heels of the year’s most colossal disappointment (for me personally), we have an early contender for the year’s biggest surprise.

Look, a lot could be said about “Chronicle,” about whether or not it’s a genuinely great film. I’m not certain it is. But two things are true above all else—firstly, in terms of sheer volume, it establishes more incredible talents whose future careers are worth watching than just about any other film I’ve seen in the last three-and-a-half years; and secondly, it does the impossible and actually infuses a found footage film with a smart, incisive, and emotional script. That alone is worth the price of admission.

What’s the problem? Well… To be honest, the “found footage” half of that equation.

Told from the viewpoint of the characters and their cameras, “Chronicle” follows three high school students as they encounter supernatural phenomena. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is a popular and beloved aspiring politician with a promising future. His best friend is Matt (Alex Russell), who is a good kid if a bit of a self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual. Rounding out the trio is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt’s brooding and wounded cousin. Andrew’s mother (Bo Petersen) is dying, and his father (Michael Kelly) is an abusive drunk. Shy and withdrawn, he is frequently bullied and keeps to himself. He eventually buys a camera and begins to document nearly his entire life, possibly because it puts a wall between him and the rest of the world.

At a party, the three of them discover a deep hole in the woods that leads to a cave. Curious, they explore it and find an unusual rock that is emitting a strange glow…

When they awaken, all three find themselves imbued with extraordinary telekinetic powers—powers that grow stronger and stronger with each use. Soon, they are flying above the clouds, moving cars with their minds, and becoming nearly invulnerable to attack.

But what happens when one of them takes it too far?

A lot needs to be said about “Chronicle” that hasn’t been—at least, not to a great extent—and the most relevant of those things, at least where those who are on the fence about seeing the film are concerned, is this: “Chronicle” is not a fun film. This is not “The Avengers.” It is not a sprightly, humorous action/adventure with big heroes, big villains, and big set pieces. To a degree, it starts out that way, but it’s a deception. “Chronicle” is a dark film that goes to unexpectedly disturbing and tragic places. It is more likely to leave you heartbroken than thrilled.

And allow me to state this as clearly as I possibly can: that is in no way a complaint.

Hollywood has really been laying the superhero origin story formula on thick these days. It has become easy to believe that it has been attacked from every angle at this point. “Chronicle” would beg to differ. It is essentially a superhero origin story, but one that is occasionally surprising and meaningful. It is an actual narrative with a clear three-act structure. It is, for once, original.

Its centerpiece is a fall into darkness that represents everything the “Star Wars” prequels should have been. This is the film’s most surprising aspect, that one of its protagonists falls into outright evil and that this character arc is actually compelling. It is a rare film that leaves you in the climax not rooting for the hero to defeat the villain, but rather for the villain to stop what he is doing. Even when the fallen former hero faces down former tormentors and abusers—criminals, as well—you want him to step back, to show mercy, to walk away and straighten his life out. He’s a villain you understand, maybe even one you like. You want his redemption, not his defeat.

When his former friend and supporter faces him down in the climax and makes those crucial decisions… There’s a sense of why they matter, and of how hard they are. That is a surprising achievement for a film of this type.

Even with the supernatural aspects at hand, “Chronicle” is an unusually realistic film—I would venture to say, even in the world of “The Dark Knight” and “Unbreakable” (which are both superior films, by the way), that it is the most realistic superhero movie ever made. It’s realistic in how the teens react to getting powers, as there’s no immediate desire to start being a superhero or to lead a different life in any way. In fact, it’s barely there by the film’s ending. It’s realistic in the sense of its world and its characters—the former relatively honest and the latter decidedly human. And it’s realistic in the sense of its overall concept—if people in our world actually had superpowers, it would quickly get terrifying for us normal folks. And it is.

And it’s all cramped by this stupid found footage thing.

It’s easy enough to tell whether something is an unnecessary gimmick or not. When creating your concept, simply ask yourself one question—am I inventing increasingly ridiculous excuses to maintain this device or otherwise ignoring that it ever existed? If yes, then it’s an unnecessary gimmick.

The found footage aspect of “Chronicle” is understandable to me on one level—Andrew using his camera to block people out of his life. And that, of course, could have been attained simply by having him carry around a camera. Heck, we could even see footage from it from time to time, so long as it didn’t dominate the film.

Where “Chronicle” goes wrong is in maintenance. Firstly, it introduces an additional character, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), whose only function in the story or as a human being is to be an extra hand carrying a camera. In any given social group, one person with a pathological need to film everything is an oddity; two is a near impossibility. Casey seems also to exist to deliver some much-needed humility to Matt, but there’s an additional problem here: the film is forced, for reasons that ought to be clear by now, to switch protagonists about three-fourths of the way through. That, obviously, is why an additional camera-wielding character was required in order to explore his character and story, in the end leaving him under-developed in comparison to the needs the plot has for him.

The film also allows the characters to manipulate the camera telekinetically to excuse itself from the frequently nauseating side effects of other found footage movies. I appreciate this trick visually, but it further emphasizes that there’s no need for the film to be done this way.

“Chronicle” would benefit from a more standard approach. As it is, it doesn’t get to breathe as much as it should, leaving the side characters under-developed and the main character’s fall, while compelling, a bit too quick and excessive. It can also lead to some dragging in the middle of the film, where, perhaps understandably, characters spend a lot of time filming parties and get-togethers and superpower testing sessions that usually aren’t too visually interesting and only occasionally advance the plot and characters.

With a standard style, “Chronicle” could afford to excise at least one totally unnecessary character, make better use of its run-time, and ultimately carry the premise through to one hundred percent fruition—because I know it can. Because the script is far too smart, and the actors are far too good.

Again—this is a film that establishes a ton of talents that everyone ought to be watching. The cast—all relative unknowns—deliver fantastic debut performances. And director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis, who collaborated on the story have, despite the limitations of the style, crafted a script that is surprisingly human and consistently original in a way superhero movies rarely are.

Great film? Probably not. But it has spots of greatness. And its flashes of originality far exceed what we’ve come to expect from superhero movies. I’m down for a sequel. And I’m much more down for everything else these people do with their careers. Ball’s in your court, guys.

-Matt T.

John Carter (2012)

Starring- Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Bryan Cranston, Polly Walker, Daryl Sabara

Director- Andrew Stanton

PG-13- intense sequences of violence and action

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlvYKl1fjBI

Two facts about me are relevant here.

Firstly, I love science fiction, and I love fantasy; therefore, that place in the middle where they occasionally meet is my favorite thing ever. There’s something about the fusion of the two genres that seems to abandon all limitations. It’s pure, uninhibited imagination, free to make up its own rules and blazes its own trails. I love it.

Secondly, despite his limited directorial output so far, I do not consider it even the slightest bit of a stretch to say that Andrew Stanton is one of my favorite directors. I’ve never quite been able to arrange the Pixar movies into a definitive list of favorites, but at the worst of times, Stanton has directed two of my top four. “Finding Nemo” is a gorgeous film, and a rare one where that term can be applied to the story and themes just as easily as the visuals. And “WALL-E”? Don’t get me started. Pure cinematic perfection. I love “Finding Nemo,” but on any given day of the week, “WALL-E” is never anything less than a top-ranking contender for my top five favorite films of all time.

To tie all of that into a definitive point… You could say that I was anticipating “John Carter” a little bit. You could also, for frame of reference, say that the sun is a little warm. It is my favorite genre of movie—and one we’ve forsaken for quite a long time now—helmed by a director I very nearly worship. I would’ve found “John Carter” disappointing had I come away from it anything less than enthralled.

So I need you to understand exactly the kind of crushing disappointment with which I say the following words: “John Carter” is actually pretty bad.

And I tried so hard to think otherwise. I borderline went through the five stages of grief while watching this thing—denial was a huge one. “It’ll get better! You’ll see! Everything will come together, and it will all make sense, and it’ll get brilliant.”

It never did. And in fact, I cannot see Andrew Stanton’s touch anywhere throughout its run-time. Almost everything I loved about “WALL-E,” “John Carter” is the antithesis.

Based on the now over a century old novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “John Carter” is told from the perspective of the author himself (Daryl Sabara), having recently inherited the estate of his deceased uncle—the title character (Taylor Kitsch).

Among the many possessions bequeathed to him is Carter’s journal, heretofore unseen by anyone other than the man himself. Inside, Mr. Burroughs finds an impossible tale of the time his uncle, a disgruntled Civil War veteran, stumbled across a portal to the planet Mars, where he found himself engulfed in a new one. With the fate of both planets in the balance, Carter stepped up to the plate, united the peoples of Mars, and fought for its liberation against a supernatural power.

“John Carter” basically gets off on the wrong foot from the very beginning, demonstrating its somewhat slapdash and unfocused style. In the first fifteen minutes, the film takes us not only to three different locations but to three different times in history—we start out on Mars in the recent past, go to an American city in the present day (the film’s present day, I mean, which is in the late 1800s), and then dive back into the past again (but this time an even more recent past). That’s where the story finally gets started.

It presents at least one fundamental problem—the audience sees Mars and watches the plot there get started before anything else happens. Because of that, the film immediately loses a necessary component—John Carter’s journey of discovery. When he finally arrives on Mars, his breathtaking new experience means very little to us, because we’ve already discovered it.

The whole film seems to collapse around this oversight. John Carter is the protagonist, and we need to see the world through his eyes. He needs to be the through-line that we follow. And yet, the film is constantly taking us away from him, preventing us both from getting a sense of his personal journey and from experiencing the kind of wonder that goes hand-in-hand with a film such as this. The story needs to follow him—he is the title character, after all. But instead, it follows the things going on around him, and that generates a lot of extra problems.

Firstly, it prevents us from getting absorbed in the world that’s been created. This movie is inevitably going to be compared to “Star Wars,” so I’m just going to invoke it now and get it over with—in “Star Wars,” we stuck with Luke Skywalker the entire time. He didn’t know about the Force or the larger universe, so it had to be explained to him, and thus, to us. He had to learn about it, and so, we got to learn as well.

“John Carter,” on the other hand, arrives on Mars, and the plot immediately begins taking us out of his perspective. The movie starts off well enough in this regard—it follows him into the camp of the Tharks, a race of tall, green, four-armed creatures, and for what it’s worth, we do get a real sense of the world they inhabit. They have a rigid, militaristic, honor-driven warrior’s culture, violent and offensive. And we see every inch of it, because John Carter is discovering it as we are. Again—he’s learning about it, and so are we.

Unfortunately, there are three different cultures on Mars—the Thark tribes, the walking city of Zodanga, and the city Helium. Guess which one of these drives the plot the least? Yeah, that’d be the Thark tribes. And guess which two of these cultures are first seen through the eyes of individuals who already know everything there is to know about them? If you said Zodanga and Helium, congratulations—you are even more cynical than I am.

You’re also right.

So, by the time John Carter actually gets to these two locations, we have already seen them in full and nevertheless learned absolutely nothing about them. Why do the Tharks, who have no technology, fight with rifles, while the peoples of Helium and Zodanga have incredible technology and yet fight with swords? The movie doesn’t give any impression that it cares. Why are the Zodangans attacking the rest of Mars? What do they want? And why does their city walk? I hope those questions don’t bother you too much, because the answers are not coming.

And Helium… Frankly, I learned so little of Helium’s setting from this film that I can’t even come up with questions to ask. It’s a place. It exists. It’s important. Deal with it. It seems to have a rigid social hierarchy, some of which is tied into the governmental structure, but yeah—you’re not going to find out.

The end result brings me back to my original complaint about 2010’s “TRON: Legacy”—it is not a fully crafted world. It is a picture of one, a photograph in an encyclopedia that forgot to write a caption for it. You see it in full, sure enough, but you pick up so little information about it that it fails to register in any way. Why should I care about a world when it doesn’t seem like a real one that could actually exist?

“But, Matt,” you might say, “you thought that ‘TRON: Legacy’ was saved by its stellar visual style! Doesn’t that also apply to ‘John Carter’?”

The answer—no, because unlike what seems to be the majority of other critics, I was not impressed by this film’s visuals. I will grant it this—the technology and the cities themselves all look very nice. Not that you get a sense of their functionality or design beyond, “The ships can fly and shoot at stuff,” but it’s pretty nevertheless.

But the rest of the movie… Well, it’s a lot of desert. You can’t sell me on the promise of lots of sprawling desert unless there’s a world that’s actually interesting behind it. Since there isn’t one, I’m not sold.

The visuals are dampened still further by a directional approach that’s, frankly, a bit awkward. This is where I begin to wonder if Andrew Stanton actually just directed this by proxy and otherwise sat it out for the entire production. I’m not talking about the cinematography itself here—everything is shot well enough. The action sequences are comprehensible and, therefore, appreciated.

But the direction is almost…impatient, for lack of a better word. In any given scene, I found myself wanting the shot to hold for a few more seconds, the scene to explore the setting just a bit more, the emotions to build just a little longer… As if “John Carter” hadn’t sabotaged its sense of wonder enough already, the scenes have no concept of emotional buildup. Its sense of these things mostly amounts to this: “Well, I figure if we throw in a couple random reaction shots for about ten seconds or so and then do the big reveal, we’ll have payoff!” It doesn’t work. It seems like it’s going all over the place.

The other problem with the lack of focus on John Carter is this: we don’t really get to know John Carter. A big part of this is the film’s conviction that withholding vital information and then revealing it in an emotionally climactic moment is more effective that simply disseminating that info from the get-go. It’s a belief that seems pervasive in modern cinema. I propose a new rule: if the character through whose eyes we are viewing the story knows something, the audience should know it, too. Otherwise, everything that character does will be completely incomprehensible until the inevitable reveal. And in the best of cases, that leaves the audience in the dark for at least half the film. That shouldn’t happen.

The supporting characters aren’t much better. The film is a solid example of a story that enslaves its characters to the plot. Lynn Collins’ Dejah Thoris plays the standard role of the spitfire female lead, who is strong-willed, independent, and will do whatever it takes to save her people—until the exact moment that she is called upon to do just that, where she suddenly reneges on this entire philosophy and puts the plot directly back on square one. Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is mean and warlike until he suddenly reveals a compassionate streak that comes across not so much as Jerk with a Heart of Gold as it does Jerk Who Is Occasionally Not a Jerk. The others are more consistent, but also either bland or so poorly established they become lost and forgotten in the convoluted plotting. The motivations of the villains are obscured for most of the film, and when they come out, they are mostly revealed as vague nonsense philosophy.

What I can say positively for “John Carter” is staggeringly little, amounting mostly to the idea that it’s not terrible in the sense that it’s insulting or pandering. It’s trying to be something, and I can tell what that something is. I can respect it for attempting to revive a long-lost and much-needed genre in the modern world of cynical and insufferably ironic blockbuster entertainment. There’s effort in it.

The problem is that I’ve come to expect so much more than mere effort from the people involved. When I look at Stanton’s past works, I see distinctive characters, simple and straightforward but engaging plotting, visual style, fully realized worlds, and emotion that is both rich and patiently realized.

I see none of that in “John Carter.”

-Matt T.

Haywire (2012)

Starring- Gina Carano, Michael Angarano, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton

Director- Steven Soderbergh

R- some violence

Trailer- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFV0Uvzpz0o

Despite the fact that my experience with film may yet be too limited to make a definitive statement, I am prepared to say that I may have disliked “Haywire” more strongly than any other film of its relative critical acclaim.

This is not a film that is simply a notch below expectations. No, this is a film about which I can find surprisingly little good to say. It is a mess, and far too big a one for the talent involved. It is a hodgepodge of several different genres thrown together into a pot and meshed at random, resulting in a film that is never one thing in particular for longer than a few seconds—unfocused and, frankly, a bit sloppy.

It follows Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), a special operations super soldier who works for a private contractor. After a taxing op in Barcelona (seemingly a hotspot for secret agent activity in films such as this), she’s ready for a little R&R when her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) shows up with a new mission—simple, two days tops, and all she has to do is play the wife of fellow agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) while he does the dirty work. When the job is done, she can have her much-needed time off.

Unable to say no, she concedes and winds up embroiled in a massive conspiracy. Her agency turns on her. The law is after her. Contacts from unrelated missions are turning up dead.

And she has no idea why.

“Haywire” is another film whose problem is less in the execution of its individual moments and more in how it gels—or utterly fails to—as a cohesive whole. Not to suggest it’s perfect, but nevertheless, there is very little to pick apart in the scenes themselves, taken individually, apart from their greater context.

The problem is that this film is simply all over the place. Action movie. Art film. Thriller. Drama. Slick espionage flick. Gritty revenge movie. It all happens, largely without warning. Any single one direction could’ve worked, and they frequently do, but not when they lapse into one another so quickly and so completely without warning or transition.

It frequently appears slapdash, to the extent that some criticisms that could be leveled at it are often overcorrected late in the film, leading to the exact opposite criticism also being a problem.

Example—early scenes establish a quick editing style that, while it allows you to see what’s going on and generally to process it in full, jumps back and forth in time and space with enough speed to become confusing and disorienting where this does not appear to have been the intent. But later on, the film slows down and generates quiet moments, even in the middle of action sequences, where the camera holds on a single shot for far too long, well past the point of its emotional effectiveness.

It’s really difficult to tell what it’s going for. In large part, the entire movie is shot and treated like an art film. The camerawork is slow and ponderous, the shots are run through a sepia filter to the point that it appears low budget (in addition to being set up in unusual and sporadically obnoxious “artistic” ways), and the performances are quiet and restrained.

And yet, there appears to be no artistic point. The story would be serviceable enough for, say, a “Mission: Impossible” film, but it can’t be expected to carry the film by itself. There’s little of interest in it, and despite its simplicity, the film’s need to muddle everything in mystery and intrigue renders most of it incomprehensible and convoluted. When the mystery is finally revealed, it’s so mundane that one wonders exactly how much audience suspense was maintained by not disclosing character motivations and behaviors right off the bat.

On top of that, it doesn’t appear to have any interesting thematic material to convey, about private contractors, the government’s use of them, the people who work for them, or just war/violence in general. It’s not an art film. It appears to be an action movie. And yet…

Well, the action seems designed specifically to be as un-entertaining as humanly possible. Gina Carano is, to my knowledge, a female MMA fighter, and fans of that sport are the only ones I could see enjoying the action here. The action sequences are filmed largely from a distance with few cuts, only the bare minimum required sound effects (if even that; sometimes, the sound is completely removed), and never (to my memory) any soundtrack music.

To be fair, it is probably the most realistic possible portrayal of the jobs and lives of actual black ops soldiers. But then again, well, something like that would be better suited to a film that was trying to be art, and this, as previously stated, doesn’t seem to be. The movie is clearly structured around the action sequences, and they are apparently its selling point. But they seem specifically designed not to be fun to watch.

Maybe they would be, if Mallory Kane was a compelling protagonist, or the film had compelling characters at all, really. To be fair, “Haywire” is filled with stellar acting talent—Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton—and all of them are clearly digging as deep into their scant roles as they can to find that depth and bring it out on-screen. This gives the film an interesting supporting cast, though not, in large part, for reasons related to the script. Carano, however, was clearly chosen more for her ability to sell herself in action sequences than to carry dramatic moments. She’s not a bad actress—not by my definition, anyway, which is limited strictly to those actors whose line delivery and emotional portrayal make me cringe. But she is not any kind of compelling or charismatic presence, merely existing on screen rather than seeming like a human being.

Reading the positive critical reviews of this film, it seems that the action sequences are somehow the film’s main appeal. So, apparently, there is an audience for this type of action, when it is being played for entertainment rather than art. However, I am not it. If anything, this film only exposes that, yeah, fistfights in real life look kind of stupid, and being a spy would actually be pretty boring. If you watch MMA fights and think you could watch people pretending to grapple like that for a really long time, then, heck, “Haywire” is probably for you.

But for me, it is a ramshackle assembly of unrelated ideas in a haphazard and clunky order. Pacing-wise, it’s like someone with a rope dangling an anvil off the edge of a skyscraper—they let go, and it drops like a brick; and then they pull back and ease it slowly for far too long before simply throwing it the rest of the way. There is no structure to it. It is an action movie masquerading as an art film, or an art film masquerading as a spy thriller. It is too quick and too slow in equal measure, too taxing for the brain and too undemanding of it simultaneously.

I have absolutely no idea what’s to like about it.

-Matt T.