(On Cable TV, March 2012) Straightforward genre exercise The Resident doesn’t have a lot of meat on its narrative bones (nor much credibility in its lead crazy-man antagonist), but it has the notable merit of being fairly well-executed, and featuring a few good actors in crucial roles. Hillary Swank stars as a medical resident dealing with an obsessed suitor/landlord, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan almost looks like he’s having fun as the improbably psychotic villain. (Meanwhile, though, Christopher Lee is a bit wasted in a very small role.) Once the story is set up (rather effectively through a rewind-flashback) as another one of those acquaintances-from-hell psychological thriller, it practically writes itself all the way to the overlong extended-fight conclusion. What saves The Resident from unqualified mediocrity, however, is the rather stylish direction and cinematography. It’s not great art, but it’s quite a bit better than many examples of the low-budget sub-genre, and it brings at least one layer of interest to the film. As for the rest, well, it’s the kind of exploitative women-in-danger film that’s been made and seen countless times. It’ll do as a way to waste time and it may even feel a bit better than most through sheer visual polish… but there just isn’t much to it.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s a place for everything in the universe of movie-making, including a movie-about-a-movie featuring a thespian, a star and a young man who learns better. Based on the true story of a young British man who once became Marilyn Monroe’s assistant during the shooting of a movie, My Week with Marilyn is a look at a flawed icon, a comedy about 1960s British film-making and a coming-of-age drama in which people get their heart broken “a little”. While much of the film’s noteworthiness is based on Michelle Williams’ convincing portrayal of Marilyn Monroe at the height of her stardom, the film is just as interesting as it presents the adventures of an aspiring filmmaker hired as a production assistant. Movie-making isn’t necessarily romantic, and My Week with Marilyn is perhaps at its funniest when it shows figures such as Laurence Olivier dealing with the stresses of directing a fluffy comedy production. The second half of the film evolves into a quasi-romance between Monroe and our boy protagonist, showing Monroe’s flaws and not neglecting the inexperience of the viewpoint character. The film doesn’t have to fight hard to keep viewers’ attention, and the period detail is convincing even though it’s Monroe’s personality that brings the entire story together. Not particularly deep, but intriguing enough: It’s easy to see why My Week with Marilyn earned some critical attention, and that it did so without sacrificing any of its ability to please audiences.
(On-demand video, March 2012) Trying to deliver alternate history on a TV-movie budget is a tough assignment, so it’s best to remain indulgent while tackling HBO’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ celebrated thriller. A murder mystery set in an alternate 1964 in which the Nazis reign triumphant over Europe, Fatherland focuses on the investigation of an honest SS officer trying to figure out the common link between a number of murders. The visual look of the film is intentionally dated, as if it was a sixties film rather than a mid-nineties TV production. Given the budget, the viewer shouldn’t expect much in terms of alternate-universe eye-candy: many swastikas, two or three alt-Berlin matte paintings and a curiously disturbing scene in which Nazis have punch-card computers at their disposal. Fatherland shares a number of problems with Harris’ novel: The entire story is built upon a revelation that the viewer already knows –a mark of some naiveté in the alternate-universe genre. The construction of the story is also fairly standard, leaving to a number of imposed scenes in which the expected occurs in pretty much the accepted fashion. But the film introduces a number of extra problems that make it worse and worse the closer it gets to a conclusion. Not only does it dispense with the elegiac ending of the novel, but it tries to tries up all loose ends nicely with a fantastically improbable appeal to authority, and then with a twenty-years-later voiceover. (It also features a divorced father trying to kidnap his kid away from his mother –but hey, that’s the moral leniency we’re supposed to give to protagonists.) It amounts to a bit of a curiosity; a bog-standard thriller set in an unusual alternate-history framework, with some intriguing images along the way to a disappointing conclusion. Rutger Hauer is fine as the lead detective, while Miranda Richardson is unexplainably annoying as the American journalist running around and getting in trouble by not showing a shred of cleverness. But then again, that’s how the script goes: All ham-fisted exposition and transparent character emotions. Fatherland is worth a look for the curiosity value, but it’s not exactly a good movie.
(On DVD, March 2012) I must be mellowing in my old age, because I can imagine a younger version me wanting to burn stuff after the whopper of a non-conclusion at the end of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. It’s a necessary spoiler to state that, after an entire film showing a man’s life getting worse and worse, the film shies away from a third act and snaps to a black screen at the moment where the crises are at their worst. While the Coens have a certain track record of doing this (and being rewarded by Oscar for the trick), careful watchers will note that the move isn’t entirely gratuitous: It’s a wrath-of-God reaction to the protagonist’s final C-grade moral decision, and the film does announce, earlier, the notion of a story without a satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s a maddening move after a generally successful black comedy in which a multitude of sharply-drawn characters are introduced and sent careening off each other. You would think that there would be a bigger payoff… but just accept that it isn’t so. As for the rest, there’s a lot to like in the film’s not-missing part, from the atmosphere of a 1967 Minnesota Jewish suburbia, to many lesser-known actors doing good work to a certain cruel sense of humor in which everything steadily gets worse and worse… even in the protagonist’s dreams. This certainly isn’t a major entry in the Coens filmography, but it does carry their usual brand of expectation-defiance and unconventional artistry.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I’m not a good audience for non-narrative films that boldly seek art-house cinema credentials, but even I have nice things to say about The Tree of Life. Non-linear, certainly non-conventional, arguably nonsensical, it wraps up a chronicle of life in 1950s Texas in broader questions about our place in the universe. It may challenge viewers who prefer every narrative arc nearly wrapped up in a bow, but it certainly rewards those who are willing to let the film wash over them without grasping at explanations. (Just accept that this is a 1950s nostalgia film with modern skyscrapers, dinosaurs, a meteor impact, a depiction of Tipler’s Omega Point, and children running into a DDT spray.) Brad Pitt portrays an unusual role as an overbearing father of three boys, holding up the “ways of nature” over his wife’s “ways of grace”, but the real star here is writer/director Terrence Malik’s elliptical film-making and the astonishing quality of the footage he’s been able to include in the film. The mind may rebel at trying to piece together every shot of the film, but there’s something beautiful to see every five minutes, and the atmosphere created by the minutiae of life as experienced by the characters is all-encompassing. It’s hard not to be moved by certain moments, or let the film’s hints at meaning lead us to flights of fancy. This, in other words, is a film to savor for mood and meditation far more than narration and entertainment –you’ve been warned.
Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 1996 original, 864 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57340-4
When it comes to long-form epic fantasy, I have no scruples relying on social proof as a reading guide. I’ll make my own damned reading decision with shorter books or in genres I like, but if I have to read a 5,000+ pages epic fantasy when I don’t particularly like either long-form stories or epic fantasy, it better be worth my time. It’s been a fixture on the Hugo nomination ballot? It’s a New York Times best-seller? It has a monstrously big fan following? It led to an HBO mini-series? Those are all reassuring hints telling me that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, as launched by A Game of Thrones, is better than the usual fantasy swill that I’ve become allergic to.
I’ve had the first four books on my shelves for years now, but it took the HBO series and an extended amount of time spent at home to convince me to pull the trigger and start reading. I have a few rules of thumbs when it comes to selecting books to read, and A Game of Thrones pitted two of them in a match to the finish. Should “Read the book as soon as you can after seeing the movie” win over “Don’t read a series until all the books are out”? Well, sure. It’s not as if the last volume will be published before 2018 anyway…
And let’s make one thing clear: The HBO series couldn’t be a better advertisement for the book. Adapted with a surprising faithfulness to the source material, it’s a monumental ten-hour achievement that manages to portray an epic fantasy with dozens of characters and sweeping events within the scope of a TV series budget. SF/Fantasy fans are used to reading books while understanding that they could never be adapted for the screen, but this is an exception. The casting is perfect (something that becomes clearer after reading the book), the advantages of a lengthy miniseries over a motion picture are cleverly exploited (by featuring depth of characters, density of plotting and a rhythm that has time to breathe) and it shows just enough to make would-be readers about the extra depth that the book could contain. By the time the bittersweet conclusion of the first season rolls, it’s hard to take a look at Martin’s series lying on the bookshelf and resist the impulsion to read the first volume and rush through the subsequent books.
The first surprise is the lack of surprise. Or, rather, it’s the satisfaction of seeing how closely the series has adhered to the novel. There are a few changes, of course: Most of the young characters are even younger in the book (something that works better on the page that on-screen), the book is told in tight point-of-view that restricts the omniscient viewpoint of the series, and some scenes feel noticeably looser in the book, as if the series had tightened the bolts of an unwieldy mess of plots and sub-plots.
But more significant are the similarities: Fans of the series will immediately recognize the characters, events and complex lineages that end up forming the backbone of the series. The density of back-story that this first volume has to explain is such that having seen the series pays off almost immediately in the first few pages: References that would be meaningless to first-time reader are immediately understood, enhancing the immersion in this new universe.
Commenting the story on its own merit, it’s now clear that Martin, when this first volume was published in 1996, was trying to deliver a somewhat grittier take on heroic fantasy than many of his colleagues. The universe of A Song of Ice and Fire is tough and unsympathetic toward its heroes. One of them falls because he is too moral for his surroundings; he even disgraces himself in vain in a bid to gain mercy for himself and his family. Another dies of infection following a relatively minor wound. This is a universe with stillborns, prostitutes, self-deluding would-be princesses and very little explicit magic despite hints that the world used to be far more interesting in this regard. Most of the book is centered toward palace intrigue writ large, with warring factions being set up and lined for a fall. (If the series had an earnest subtitle, it would be something like “Problems with the concept of hereditary succession, with many examples.”) The temptation to be attached to characters is tempered by the suspicion that Martin is only too ready to kill them off at the slightest opportunity.
In short, A Game of Thrones takes familiar elements of classical epic fantasy and re-uses them competently. The density of awe-inspiring wonders is less here than in other series, but the attention to characters, the depth of the imagined mythology and family lineage, the deceptively easy prose all combine to produce a smooth reading experience. This is about as good as long-form epic fantasy ever gets, so it’s no big wonder if the series has gained such a popular following inside and outside the usual fantasy circles: It’s good, it’s handled with skill and (it always helps) it’s now even further enhanced by its TV adaptation.
The result is good enough to make me ignore my usual “don’t read books before the last volume is out” guideline. It’s a roaring start to a promising series, and I’ve got four more books to go before I’m as caught up with it than the other fans. Onward!
(On DVD, March 2012) Luc Besson’s return to large-scale live-action fantasy after more than a decade’s absence promises more than it delivers. Oh, let’s be fair: The first fifteen minutes of Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec are completely enjoyable: The omniscient narration sets up a charming historical adventure with wit and humor, the fast-paced editing promises a zippy film and the heroine that is Adèle Blanc-Sec seems like a 1910s Lara Croft prototype, albeit funnier and more credible because of her occasional vulnerability. After that, alas, the film gets wildly uneven: Despite the big budget, the historical recreation, the sympathetic protagonist and the odd elements of fantasy thrown in pictures downtown Paris, Adèle Blanc-Sec is constantly undermined by its own script. The subplots don’t merge graciously (an artifact, I gather, of trying to adapt several of Blanc-Sec’s original comic books in one movie), the conclusion gets sillier and sillier, Besson can’t resist his politicians-and-policemen-are-idiots shtick, and every so often, it seems as if the colossal energy invested in the film is at the service of sub-par farce. The film has serious tone problems that make it hard to take seriously as an adventure. Some of the jokes work (I’m fond of the end Louvre/Pyramid gag), but more of them don’t. Too bad, especially given Louise Bourgoin’s charming performance in the complex lead role: Blanc-Sec has to kick ass, tell jokes, makes mistakes, wear disguises, suffer indignation and have some compassion for a paralyzed sister, and Bourgoin seems quite a bit better in doing those things than she script she serves. While the film still has enough of a visual and creative kick to earn a recommendation (especially for Besson fans), it doesn’t quite manage to be as good as it could have been. Besson has announced his wish to make sequels… we’ll see if the market demands it.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Political junkies will get their fix of gossipy fantasy in this made-for-HBO docu-fictive account of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 American Presidential race as seen from her Republican entourage. Fans of the original Halperin/ Heilemann book will be surprised to find out that this adaptation barely mentions the Obama/Clinton contest and focuses solely on Palin’s selection and the backroom dealings of the Republican strategists trying to do what they can with an unsuitable candidate. At its best, Game Change is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a major political campaign as a team of self-aware political professionals has to deal with a wholly unsuitable candidate. It plays like a mainstream Hollywood comedy in which a half-wit is thrust in a position of importance… except that it really happened, and it happened recently in an American presidential election. True enough, Palin occasionally comes across in the film as more admirable than her public personae would suggest: a dedicated mom, perhaps a figure to be pitied for having been asked to do more than she ever could. Still, she really doesn’t come across well here: out of her depth, overwhelmed, petty and of limited capabilities. The casting is exceptional: Julianne Moore excels in a nearly-perfect take on Palin, whereas Ed Harris has no problem establishing himself as a sympathetic McCain. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson turns in a clever performance as strategist Steve Schmidt, the nominal protagonist of the film. The film is generally well-directed by comedy director Jay Roach and scripted competently, but it does have to work within the constraints of real-world events: The dramatic arc here is slight (especially compared to Obama’s journey) and even understanding that this is a heavily dramatized version of events as they occurred isn’t much of a comfort. Game Change will appeal to those who remember the 2008 election well, but may not be all that compelling for others. Which is fine, really: Even political buffs deserve their slick Hollywood entertainment.
(On-demand video, March 2012) Add another piece of evidence for the theory that Direct-to-Video movies are getting better thanks to digital production techniques: Sniper Reloaded may not be a film for the ages, but it’s a serviceable piece of B-grade action film. Shot in South Africa but meant to take place in war-torn Congo, this very loose sequel to the first three Sniper film has a few thematic ambitions by looking at the complicated politics of African civil insurrections. Here, a Marine narrowly escapes death-by-sniper when trying to rescue a white farmer. Trying to find the identity of the mysterious sniper only gets him deeper in trouble. Add a few shooting sequences, a little bit of occasional directorial flair, some earnest performances and snippets of beautiful African scenery and the result is quite a bit better than anyone would expect from a third direct-to-video sequel. While it wouldn’t be fair to praise Sniper Reloaded beyond its modest goals as a moderately entertaining genre picture, it does achieve those goals handily, and deserves a bit of recognition as such.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) There are a few remarkable things about this low-budget, low-profile horror sequel, and the least important one is how, even if it’s a sequel to a remake (Quarantine) of an Spanish horror film (Rec), it doesn’t have any similarity to the direct sequel of the Spanish original (Rec 2). Rather than go back to the apartment building of the first film, this sequel goes to lock itself up somewhere else; first in an airplane, then in an airport terminal. Heck, it doesn’t even keep the subjective-camera motif of the first film. Fortunately, Quarantine 2 holds up pretty well to casual viewing: The sense of claustrophobia is acute in the plane-bound first act, and if the film loses a bit of steam once back on the ground, it keeps a good focus on the scares and the forward narrative rhythm. The small cast of characters is efficiently introduced and just as effectively eliminated. The back-story explanation reaching to the first film doesn’t feel completely idiotic, and the film does take advantage of its environment in order to heighten the suspense. Quarantine 2 ends up being a perfectly acceptable genre picture, successful in part because it doesn’t have any illusions about what it tries to be, and deliver to the audience. The gradual distancing away from its Spanish origins also works well –although you shouldn’t let this influence you away from watching Rec 2, which is good in entirely different ways.
(In theaters, March 2012) Anyone who thinks that Hollywood is usually in the business of promoting the American military-entertainment complex may want to get off their high horses for a moment and have a look at Act of Valor, because for once this is the real deal: An unabashed sloppy kiss to covert military operations, produced without subtlety, shame nor questioning of its premises. Few other films shown in theaters, after all, start with a featurette in which the directors explain that they felt compelled to cast real-life SEALs as lead actors, and willingly embed themselves with military units during production. And that’s not even discussing the end credits, in which country music plays over a montage of pure-Americana pictures of soldiers, firefighters, families, flags and such. Story-wise, Act of Valor is either about American soldiers either being good family men or killing terrorists, in-between action sequences featuring real SEALs doing real-SEALs things. The result feels a lot like a movie made for a specialty audience, much like the religious-themed films that pop up in limited release from time to time. As you may expect during discussions between true believers in America’s exceptional nature, there’s little need for subtlety, characterization or even good acting: The real-life-SEALs in the starring roles are charmingly earnest in the way they read their lines, but while they can enforce national policy by gunpoint, they’re not actors and they can’t save a script that seems proud to run clichés into the ground. Still, the point of Act of Valor isn’t a fine storytelling: It’s about brute-force action sequences and the promotion of American might as its basks against a backdrop of family, honor, freedom and other quasi-myths that make American feel better about themselves. Crazily enough, it works well at times: Some of the action sequences are shot with energy (the gunboat sequence is good –although it could have been better without the over-editing) and at times, even with the coarse appeal to symbolism, it’s almost easy to forget that as a Canadian, I’m being asked to cheer for people who wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in my head if ever they were told to. As a movie, Act of Valor is closer to a curiosity than to a success –but it’s an interesting artifact, and one that’s hard to dismiss in part due to its anti-cynical, plainly partisan outlook. At the very least it’s going to become a reference of sorts, for pure distilled pro-military propaganda on the big screen.
(On DVD, March 2012) The original Rec didn’t really need a sequel, but Rec 2 does an interesting job at trying to take the story somewhere unexpected. Crucially, the claustrophobic found-footage format of the first film is re-created with a few refinements, including three different camera systems. Much of the story also takes place in the same apartment building, albeit digging deeper in the penthouse-of-horrors where the first film ended. From a cinematographic standpoint, Rec 2 works well in-between the sense of dread, carefully orchestrated direction, occasional moments of shock and gore, and a few innovations in trying to reinvigorate the found-footage premise. Story wise, unfortunately, Rec 2 often meanders and confuses itself needlessly. Perhaps the more controversial decision is to shift the mythology of the zombie outbreak into Catholic religious terms –you can almost hear horror fans sputter “Zombies are all right, but just I can’t believe in demonic possession!” Not that Rec 2 actually sticks to strict exorcism: By the time the movie ends, there are so many loose threads (monsters on the ceiling, flaming blood, visual trickery, body-snatching slugs) that just about any explanation is a good as others. Other elements defy rational explanations, such as inconsistent motivations (even from the monsters) and a weaker second act that sucks some energy out of the picture. Fortunately, the film is so slickly-made that wobbly story premises don’t hurt it as much as you’d think: Jonathan Mellor turns in a good performance as a mysterious man with the answers, whereas the real star of the film are the two directors (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, who also wrote and directed the first film) taking care of the mayhem. Not a bad result, especially for an entirely optional sequel.
(On-demand video, March 2012) Watching Hugo became mandatory after its five-Oscar performance at the 84th Academy Awards, but such success was predictable given that Hugo is a movie celebrating movies; Hollywood loves patting itself on the back (as further proved by the night’s other big winner, the silent-film homage The Artist) and Hugo is less about its plot that it is about seeing Martin Scorsese deliver a paean to the beginning of the film industry and, in the same breath, the tradition perpetuated by Hollywood. Which isn’t to say that Hugo is overrated: As a flight of fancy honoring Georges Meliès and the beginning of film-making as a dream factory, it’s perfectly-controlled, lavishly produced and almost heartfelt. It tells an enchanting story and does so with the best and latest feats of technical wizardry. Even seen in two-dimensions, Hugo benefits from having been shot in 3D: The opening half-hour, in particular, shows a Cameronian understanding of how to move a camera through space, creating a depth to the film that will delight anyone interested in great cinematography. The special effects are used wisely, and 1931 Paris comes alive in a way that somehow feels different from any of the many versions of the city seen on film so far. Hugo doesn’t avoid feeling a bit long, especially toward the end, and wallows in its own sentimentality, but the result is still a film that combines emotion and technology in efficient fashion. Ben Kingsley is remarkable, and the film allows itself a few moments that, while not strictly necessary, show how much wonder you can create with a big budget and decent craftsmen. The 2011 epitome of Hollywood at its most lavish, Hugo will speak most clearly to cinephiles willing to embrace “the magic of movies”.
(In theaters, March 2012) Good casting is about finding actors able to fulfill the demands of a particular role; good typecasting is about using the actors’ existing screen persona to flesh out characters. In this case, seeing Ryan Reynolds face off against Denzel Washington and Brendan Geeson, we can already guess a few things about their dramatic arc: Reynolds is a young hot-shot who will learn much; Washington is an honorable rogue who never shows a moment of weakness and Geeson, well, [spoilers]. This kind of ready-made characterization plays right in the hands of Safe House, a routine spy thriller that goes through the motions and delivers at least most of the thrills we expect from a film of its sort. The colorful Cape Town location adds a dash of interest (we see downtown, the stadium, the slums and the neighboring countryside), but much of the film is deeply stepped into the thriller conventions of the espionage business. The premise isn’t bad (young agent sees turncoat show up at his safe house; mayhem ensues) and the development has its moments (say, during the inevitable car chase, or the twists and turns of the stadium sequence) but it leads somewhere very familiar, with plot developments that can safely be predicted by looking at the casting. The direction is an added irritant, as it indulges in pseudo-realistic drab shaky-cam cinematography and mumbled dialogue: it’s exactly the wrong choice of aesthetics for a film that doesn’t really adhere to our version of reality nor has anything crucial to say about the state of the world. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and the lead actors all deliver good performances in typical roles. Fans of Reynolds and Washington will get their fixes, as well as any indulgent thriller buff.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Another year, another crop of cheap SF movies produced for specialty cable channels. Collision Earth, like many such undistinguished efforts as Ice Quake or Metal Tornado, faithfully follows the usual disaster-movie plot template: Mysterious events, life-threatening revelations, scientists allying themselves with ordinary people to find a solution. It’s all wrapped in classic low-budget filmmaking: by-the-number script; found locations; merely adequate actors; and wildly inconsistent special effects. What distinguishes Collision Earth is scope and a certain go-for-broke grandness. The first few minutes show the tone as much in bad physics than in grand concepts, as a shuttle doing a Mercury fly-by is swept along when a massive solar flare sends the planet careening straight toward Earth. No points will be awarded for credible science or technology, but then again this is a film with an oddly awe-inspiring scene in which Seattle’s cars are all sent up in the sky due to Mercury’s magnetism. (Then: be prepared for a lot of CGI falling cars.) Collision Earth is just as heartless in disposing of its supporting characters in unsentimental, quasi mechanistic ways. It doesn’t amount to a movie that escapes the Syfy death-kiss of low quality, but it does have a few moments to distinguish itself. The best thing about this being a made-for-TV movie is that you will never have to pay for it, except by letting it waste your time.