Monthly Archives: January 2014

The World’s End (2013)

(Video on Demand, January 2014) Given the quasi-classic status that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz enjoy in my own personal ranking, I was waiting for The World’s End with loaded expectations: As the concluding entry in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, would it be as funny, as tightly-written, as visually innovative and as purely enjoyable as its two predecessors? Well, while it may not be as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead, nor as satisfying as Hot Fuzz, The World’s End definitely holds its own as a great piece of genre moviemaking. A boozy nostalgic comedy that eventually evolves into something far more outrageous (with a daring ending that crams another film’s worth of content in the last five minutes), The World’s End is perhaps most impressive for the interplay between structure and surface, as written signs comment upon the action, as the story is outlined in-text as a flashback before re-occurring during the film, or for the various (sometimes less-than-pleasant) questions raised by the ending. There is a lot of depth here, and some of it may not be entirely apparent at a first viewing. Still, The World’s End is no mere puzzle box: it works well on a surface level, whether it’s the actors reunited for the occasion (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost interchanging their hero/cad roles, obviously, but also Martin Freeman, the lovely Rosamund Pike, and a glorified cameo by Pierce Brosnan), the impressive fight choreography, the ironic dialogue and Wright’s usual attempt to push film grammar in new directions. While a first viewing leaves a bit unsettled, The World’s End steadily grows in stature as you reflect on it –another characteristic it shares with its predecessors. Mission accomplished for Wright/Pegg/Frost, then, as the wait begins for their next films.

2 Guns (2013)

(Video on Demand, January 2014) Sometimes, subtlety or originality be damned, simple and straightforward is the way to do it. So it is that 2 Guns doesn’t need much more than a premise re-using familiar genre elements (in this case, two undercover agents teaming up against drug cartels after accidentally stealing far more than they expected and discovering that the other is not a hardened criminal) and two solid actors doing what they know best. Mark Whalberg is up to his usual average-blue-collar-guy persona as a Navy agent caught hanging in the breeze, while Denzel Washington is all effortless charm as a DEA agent close to going rogue. Both actors work differently, but here they get a good chance to play off each other, and the result feels more than entertaining. They really don’t stretch their persona, but 2 Guns is a breezy film that doesn’t requires brave performances. (Case in point: Paula Patton looking good and Bill Paxton acting bad, stretching a bit but not too much.) Director Baltasar Kormákur ably follows-up on his previous Contraband by delivering an average but competent criminal action thriller with clean set-pieces and straightforward narrative rhythm. It’s hard to say much more about 2 Guns: Who needs a new classic when the same-old can be done so well?

Blue Jasmine (2013)

(Video on Demand, January 2014) If the mark of a great actor is making us sympathize with character we would otherwise find exasperating, then Cate Blanchett truly deserves honors for her performance in Blue Jasmine. The story of a woman struggling with life after the end of her lavish marriage to a convicted Wall Street fraudster, Blue Jasmine is a character study more than anything else; Blanchett faithfully reflects the multiple contradictory facets of the scripted protagonist and the result can be as affecting as they are maddening. Setting Blue Jasmine in San Francisco after a long series of films taking place in Europe, Allen doesn’t do much with the city, but keeps the focus on the idiosyncrasies of his lead character, and the interactions she has with the ones surrounding her. Despite glimmers of redemption, it doesn’t end well, or even as anyone would hope: By the time the film ends, it’s a mercy that we’re not shown more, because there is no happy ending possible. And yet, despite the lead character’s self-destroying flaws, Blanchett keeps our sympathy throughout. Allen’s self-effacing direction helps, and the able supporting cast knows their place. While Blue Jasmine‘s lack of a conclusion leaves without satisfaction, the journey has its moments.

This is the End (2013)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) Now being comfortably in my late thirties, there’s a limit to the amount of amusement I can get from rough frat-boy humor, with its soft-drugs and penile references in-between copious swearing. Still, This is the End knows exactly what kind of laughs it wants to get, and it’s successful at what it does. The focus on the nature of young adult friendships in the face of trying circumstances may not be new (Seth Rogen alone has mined it for the past decade since Superbad) but it adds a little bit more substance to what would otherwise be a juvenile festival of phallic jokes, scatological references and drug humor. This is the End, by its very nature (six actors playing exaggerated version of themselves as the world around them is consumed by a biblical apocalypse) is intensely self-referential, and the corpus of movies and celebrity gossip you have to know before getting the most out of this one is lengthy –it’s best if you have a working knowledge of the live and films of Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny MacBride, along with a passing familiarity with Michael Cena, Emma Watson, Rihanna and the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Sort of a silly Hollywood home movie writ large, This is the End still manages to get a few laughs and chuckles: Evan Goldberg’s direction is self-assured, there’s a sense that there are no self-imposed limits to the comedy, and the ensemble cast is simply remarkable, both for its presence but also for the lengths at which the performers will go in order to spoof their own screen persona and get their laughs. It also has the decency to end on a very high note, wrapping up a film that compensates for its own worst excesses. The result may not be particularly refined or subtle (although there is at least one laugh-aloud implicit joke when we realize that the heavenly rapture has passed by without claiming a single Hollywood partygoer), but This is the End has the strength of its own immaturity.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

(On Cable TV, January 2013) At first glance, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has a lot going for it: An ensemble of high-powered comic actors, a rich premise that opposes old-school stage magic with new-style street magic, a return to glitzy Las Vegas and a can’t-miss redemptive arc for the protagonist. What we get is quite a bit less straightforward. From the laboured beginning all the way through an overlong third act, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone can’t quite find either a consistent tone or a sustained rhythm. Scenes run too long (even when the directing bets on the old “repeat it long enough and it will start being funny again” fallacy), the tone keeps going back and forth between attempted sincerity and zany antics and there’s a distinct sense that the film just isn’t trying hard enough to make good use of the tools at its disposal. Steve Carrell may have a likable hangdog charm, but the film takes a lot of time to dispense with the initial arrogance of his character, and then goes through the exasperating romance with a co-star half his age. Fortunately, the cast is usually better than the material. An occasionally-unrecognizable Jim Carrey steals most of his scenes as a street magician with a poor sense of self-preservation (while his scenes are generally the funniest of the film, they’re also the most out-of-place, contributing to the tonal problems), while Alan Arkin makes the most out of a plum grouchy-old-mentor role. Olivia Wilde, Steve Buscemi and James Gandolfini bring added depth to perfunctory-written supporting characters, but even they seem a bit bored with the material. As with the similarly-themed Now You See Me, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes the mistake of using CGI to accomplish magic tricks, undermining its basic credibility in the process. Alas, it doesn’t have the breakneck pacing of Now You See Me, and the result feels decidedly average. It’s not that the film doesn’t have its moments (there’s a really good bedtime magician patter scene, and the film always becomes funnier once Arkin or Carrey are on-screen), but it feels as if it’s not trying hard enough the rest of the time. While it’s funny and entertaining enough to warrant a look, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn’t earn much more than a final shrug. There is, simply put, too little magic in the final result.

Runner Runner (2013)

(Video on-demand, January 2014) I may not have any measurable interest for gambling in my own personal life, but I’m certainly a sucker for films that revolve around the subject. So it is that even a disappointing thriller like Runner Runner can get me smiling even as its shortcomings are obvious. Justin Timberlake stars (and doesn’t do badly) as a bright young man who gets sucked into the seductive lifestyle of an online casino operation headquartered in sunny Costa Rica: the initial allure of his new job quickly turn sour when he discovers the web of secrets masterminded by the business’ shady owner (Ben Affleck, in a role that could have been played better by many other actors). The narration-heavy script is initially pretty good with the details, but those get scarcer as the film advances and accelerates, much to the audience’s detriment: As the protagonist’s life-saving machinations get more intense, our glimpse into what’s happening gets narrower and narrower, and the rhythm of the film seems to push aside much of the detail that initially makes Runner Runner so interesting. It also runs roughshod over some of the essential connective tissue of the story: The romance between our hero and the initially-unattainable heroine (Gemma Arterton, looking good but stuck without much to say) is developed without depth, to a point where no one really cares if she’s truly loyal to the protagonist or not. Timberlake isn’t too bad as the lead, but it’s Anthony Mackie who gets the most of his supporting role as an FBI agent, with a few good monologues to project an adequate amount of menace. (Mackie’s been seen in a few supporting roles so far, and he usually manages to impress in them.) Director Brad Furman doesn’t have as good a script as the one he had for his previous film The Lincoln Lawyer, and if the result may be a serviceable way to spend 90 minutes, Runner Runner is not quite as interesting as it should have been.

Poolboy: Drowning out the Fury (2011)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) Low-budget comedies languishing in the back-catalogue of cable movie channels are a gamble: most of them aren’t very funny to begin with, and when the films themselves are hampered with the constraints of a low (often very low) budget, the best one can hope for is a little charm and a few chuckles. Given this, my expectations for Poolboy: Drowning out the Fury were modest… and they were pleasantly exceeded. There is little doubt that Poolboy labours under the constraints of an ultra-low budget. Unlike other films, though, Poolboy recognizes, embraces and celebrates its lack of resources: It brazenly uses badly-integrated stock footage, re-plays identical sequences, doesn’t care about overacting, badly fakes location shooting and messes with jaded audience expectations. The best thing about the film may be a moderately-witty script that builds an elaborate meta-fictional game of fourth-wall-breaking self-references, loosely structured around a “lost movie” conceit. Poolboy purports to present a 1990 film lost to studio meddling, in which a Vietnam veteran fights the Mexican cartels that have taken over the Los Angeles pool-cleaning industry. Insane levels of racism, sexism, gore, offensiveness and gratuitous nudity abound –although you have to be careful for what you wish for in “gratuitous nudity”. Surrounding the ultra-cheap action film footage are commentaries from the megalomaniacal director St. James St. James (played with panache by Ross Patterson, who also wrote the script), interviews with survivors of the shoot, newspaper clippings and other such elaborate nonsense. It’s silly and juvenile and moronic and surprisingly amusing. The dialogue has its moments, but Poolboy‘s deadpan refusal to slow down is what makes the film so surprisingly enjoyable: It piles up the jokes one atop the other, seldom pausing for laughs or milking its latest gag. As a result, Poolboy feels densely-paced and quite a bit more confident in its own silliness than other similar low-budget efforts. (It’s even… dare I say… clever.) Kevin Sorbo is a good sport as the Ramboesque protagonist, while Danny Trejo seems to have fun incarnating Mexican-criminal stereotypes. Humor is subjective, obviously, and I suspect that there’s something in Patterson’s absurdist script that’s suspiciously like my own kind of funny (He had my attention thirty seconds in the film, with “…and the last three are a lifestyle”), but that’s a reviewer’s prerogative: In the meantime, Poolboy gets my recommendation as a hidden gem, one that will appeal most fiercely to jaded viewers with a taste for self-referential satire and familiarity with low-budget movies. It’s my happy discovery of the month. It’s not just one of those “best worst movies”: à la Black Dynamite, Poolboy is definitely aiming to get its intended laughs. St. James St. James is my new favourite film auteur.

Dark Skies (2013)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) Astute commentators have already pointed out that stories about alien abductions now have more to do with horror than science-fiction, and Dark Skies does little more than demonstrate this with a perfect straight-faced lack of self-awareness. The story of how a typical suburban family is terrorized by alien invaders coming to abduct one of their own, Dark Skies ends up running through the motions of a formula-driven horror film with little more than competency. As the strange events pile up, coherency becomes less important than a steady drip of chills, and if writer/director Scott Stewart wisely avoids the cheapest shock tactics, what ends up on the screen is more eerie than straight-up scary. The assaulting aliens have near-omnipotent powers, making the idea of resistance a farce. Still, there’s a bit to like in the surrounding material: The portrait of a family being threatened is realistic enough in its domesticity, Keri Russell gets a good role as the mother under duress and JK Simmons makes the most out of a thankless exposition-heavy role. While the material is generally handled with a fair bit of skill, Dark Skies remains uninspired and uninspiring throughout: There’s little zest to the movie, and the results just pale in comparison with some of the better horror movies of the past few years. (For a much, much better recent family-in-peril horror thriller, see Sinister.) For genre commentators, there’s something depressing in the way SF stock elements such as abducting aliens are used as serviceable props in a mediocre horror film: but so things go when mythologies get absorbed by the mainstream.

Vamp U (2011)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) The obvious jokey review here is that vampire comedy Vamp U truly sucks, but that’s not quite enough to capture the lack of humor that so often kills this film. The low production budget is obvious in the lack of visual ambition and often-clumsy way the scenes are blocked and edited. That could have forgiven with a better script, but Vamp U is tormented by a truly ineffective sense of humor: the shot-per-shot pacing of the film often pauses for unexplainable reasons, until you realize that the last line is supposed to be a joke and the viewers are supposed to be laughing. The duds are loud and numerous, and they’re never as annoying as where they’re supposed to be recurring gags: The “Wayne Gretsky” naming thing never works, and neither do the “Amish” or the breaking-guitar bits. The actors are decidedly not at the top of their profession (although Adam Johnson and Julie Gonzalo have a few good moments), but the script does them no favours by establishing faintly obnoxious characters. The first act of Vamp U takes forever to set up the film’s most interesting question, and nearly each meager plot point taking two or three scenes to be established as if the viewers couldn’t be trusted to keep up with the film’s already glacial pacing. The action picks up in the last half-hour, but then Vamp U turns disturbingly misogynistic as three big guys take turns to graphically slaughter a large number of young women. (They’re supposed to be vampires, but that doesn’t make it any less troublesome to watch. Added to the ick-factor of a professor sleeping with a student earlier in the film, it doesn’t make for a film that you’d recommend to others.) At times, Vamp U is so amateurish that it threatens the most basic willing suspension of disbelief: it’s nowhere as good as the similar Transymania (which is saying something) and its most redeeming quality may be that it makes many other low-budget witless comedies look good in comparison. What, you say that Kickstarter was instrumental in finishing the film? Well huh…

Mud (2012)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) A coming-of-age drama blended with a crime thriller may not strike anyone as particularly promising movie experience, but thanks to writer/director Jeff Nichols’ savvy, Mud quickly becomes compelling viewing. After two teenage boys discover a fugitive living alone on an abandoned Mississippi island, they get drawn into a dangerous game between his girlfriend, bounty hunters and the adults in their lives. Matthew McConaughey scores another solid post-Lincoln Lawyer role as the titular Mud, a fugitive who ends up fascinating audiences as much as he mesmerizes his two teenage helpers. From a deceptively slow-paced first act, Mud gets wilder and more urgent as it goes on, culminating in a strong shoot-out that settles things for most characters. The sense of place in rural Arkansas is well-presented, and the banter between the two teenage leads is just as well-crafted: At times, the images were powerful enough to strongly remind me of my own teenage antics in rural Quebec. There’s a good heart in this picture, but enough hard edges to avoid it turning into a mawkish collection of clichés. While it may not sound like much of a high-concept on paper, Mud is quite a bit better than expected.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2010)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) Urban fantasy is a hot literary genre, but it seldom works on-screen in a context smaller than a TV series: the work required to set up an entire mythology of creatures running around large cities is significant, and most “supernatural private investigators” usually end up in a series of books, or with their TV show. With low-budget one-offs like Dylan Dog (adapted from an Italian comic book series that I haven’t read and will continue to ignore), the danger is both in repetition and lack of depth: The film feels like a TV series pilot in the way it sets up a familiar underworld of werewolves, vampires and zombies. Which isn’t to say that the film is completely without interest: Some of the world-building bits are clever, and Brandon Routh is quite likable as the square-jawed titular protagonist. (This being said, Sam Huntington gets the film’s best dramatic arc and one-liners as a recently-resurrected zombie who has to cope with his new condition.) Otherwise, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night is weakest in its rote fight sequences and clunky plot mechanics: director Kevin Munroe can’t bring anything new to the private investigation shtick, while the whole “talk to people, visit places to collect clues” rhythm gets a bit tiresome. Fortunately, the New Orleans atmosphere occasionally comes through, and the comedy works better than the horror. As a TV series pilot, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night would have been tolerable. As a standalone film, it’s best appreciated as a wholly generic take on the urban fantasy genre: not too bad if you’re not asking for much more, but nowhere near what a film like this could be.

Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder

Michael Wiese, 2005, 195 pages, ISBN 978-1932907001

If you feel that most Hollywood movies these days all feel the same, well, you may have a point: As a recent Slate article explained, writing for blockbuster movies has become a highly structured process and many writers are following the “beat sheet” as explained in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!

Hollywood, as you may guess, hasn’t waited until recently to codify script-writing. Syd Field’s classic Screenwriting has been telling budding screenwriters what to do since the late seventies (Dared by a friend to “do better”, I wrote two screenplays in the mid-nineties faithfully following Field’s formula), and Robert McKee has been giving his story seminar since the early eighties, leading to a massive book version of his theory, Story, in 1997. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: in addition to stacks of how-to manuals on bookstore shelves, screenplay-writing seminars are nearly everywhere in Hollywood. Most of them champion strong structure, admonish writers to show rather than tell, emphasise the importance of sympathetic characters and try to impress upon novices the importance of theme.

But Blake Snyder’s book manages to stand out even in a saturated environment. For one thing, Snyder (unlike Field or McKee) was a working Hollywood screenwriter prior to his death in 2009. His filmed output is admittedly meager (a largely-forgotten 1994 kid’s comedy called Blank Check, and the widely-derided 1992 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Stop! Or my Mom Will Shoot!) but Snyder reliably sold his own original scripts to studios during the nineties “spec craze”. Not coincidentally, Save the Cat! is focused on a single thing: writing a script that sells. Everything else is secondary.

It also means that everything else is slave to the “write to sell” mantra. In Snyder’s world, there are no surer arbitrators of taste than studio checks and box-office numbers. Save the Cat! memorably goads idealistic cinephiles by dismissing Memento out of hand –the oh-so-wonderful writing gimmick of the film being irrelevant given how little money the film made. (Of course, savvy cinephiles will be prompt to point out that Memento not only made a profitable twenty-five million dollars out of a nine million production budget, but also it led writer Christopher Nolan to a career that now includes four movies having grossed more than two hundred million dollars. But, you know: that’s the art of trolling film nerds.) Snyder, writing from his perspective inside the red-carpeted ivory towers of Hollywood, has little use for art when structure and cute epigrams can do the job.

Still, it’s easy to be sucked into Save the Cat!‘s focused charm. Snyder writes using more recent examples than either Field or McKee (in a strange coincidence, it even discusses an in-development film, Ride Along, that finally debuted on screens at the same time I was reading the book, nearly ten years after publication), and can rely on a long personal history within Hollywood to give anecdotes and glimpses at the writer’s life. It’s redundant to say that it’s written to sell itself: even non-screenwriters who just want to learn more about the business of writing movies will be entertained by the entire book.

For those cinephiles not yet ready to let go of the same story-driven idealism that led to oddballs such as Memento, it’s worth wondering if Snyder’s book represents a distillation of all that is wrong with Hollywood. The Slate article mentioned above amply demonstrates what contemporary filmgoers already know: blockbuster screenwriting has become even more formulaic as of late, and Snyder’s “beat sheet”, which specifies the script page on which twists and turns should occur (don’t worry, it’s not new: Field’s theory pretty much had the same prescriptions for acts) is an easy way to sell a story to risk-averse studio executives.

But as a movie reviewer, I’m not completely outraged by the thought that nearly everyone in Hollywood is using the methods suggested by Blake and others. For one thing, originality is overrated: execution is what matters, and the modern blockbuster is often far more interesting for its action-driven set-pieces than for its overall plot. For another, the structure found in Save the Cat! is a reliable way to ensure at least a minimal level of quality.

Oh, stop laughing: the beat-sheet structure provides a structural safety net for screenwriters, and while it may process every single premise into a conveyor-belt of similitude, it often prevents far worse material from making it on-screen. I may not share the current craze for all things adapted-from-comic-books, but the truth is that nerd-favorite properties cost a lot of money to film, and if banging out a script according to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is the way to green-light risky prospects, then we’re better off with competent scripts for actual movies rather than perfect scripts for non-existent films. Furthermore, one suspects that conventional success finances artistic risk-taking. Directors use the profits of a franchise entry to get a green-light for their passion projects, studios take the profits from one comics-adapted blockbuster to finance those mid-budgeted original screenplay. The Dark Knight directly leads to Inception, and we get two awesome films out of the deal.

So it is that despite Snyder’s monomaniacal drive to sell, I’m not quite ready to dismiss his methods out of hand: Save the Cat! offers a revealing look beyond the scenes of Tinseltown, and I got quite a kick out of it as a film reviewer… even though for a while I may be a touch too competent at spotting the story beats as I see movies unspool. But the magic of movies are that they work even if you know everything about how they were made. So it is that if Hollywood wants to use story scaffolding such as Save the Cat!, then let them knock themselves out: I’ll be waiting to see if the result is worth the trouble no matter the path it took to get there.

Freeloaders (2012)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) I have some affection for dumb comedies, and that sometimes translates into a satisfied shrug to describe a film that’s objectively bad. So it is with Freeloaders, an unchallenging comedy about a group of moochers forced to move out of a Los Angeles house when their rock-star host decides to sell his home and move to New York. A few episodic sequences ensue, followed by a tackled-on ending that the protagonists don’t really have to work for. Structurally, the script is a mess and the characters barely deserve any sympathy. But if you’re in the mood for this kind of comedy, Freeloaders fits expectations: It’s not meant to be smart, but it has a few celebrity cameos (Olivia Munn has an unflattering walk-on, Denise Richards only has to be nice, while Richard Branson is asked to look bemused) and The Counting Crows’s Adam Duritz, who also produced the film- is the house owner being so kind to the titular freeloaders, ends up concluding the film with a spirited performance of “Hanginaround” that you will be humming for days. Freeloaders features actors doing their best at being likable and lays on the jokes until a few of them sticks. Dave Foley is most remarkable in a heavily self-deprecating role as himself, while Jane Seymour gets a few laughs as a high-powered real estate agent. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of cheap jokes and irresponsible behavior that make up most of the film, with a few ill-advised romantic moments meant to bloat the film up to 77 minutes. Still, it has a bit of charm and charm is often enough to make a difference in low-budget, low-wit comedies. Freeloaders will make you grin if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not going to be a particularly good film and that better comedies are likely to be available from the exact same sources that will rent, show or stream this film.

Spring Breakers (2012)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) I would really like to dismiss Spring Breakers as just another piece of exploitative trash, badly-shot and hazily written in an attempt to revel in the debauchery of American Spring Break antics. And much of it is exactly that: Written and directed by notorious trash-master Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers does portray, in gritty pseudo-documentary style, the excesses of Spring Break and the depravity of modern teenagers. But only the most obstinate viewers won’t find a few deeper themes and artistic flourishes running throughout the film. The story of four college girls headed to Spring Break and gradually lured into the criminal lifestyle, Spring Breakers does have a few undeniable strengths doing for it. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid noting that despite the rampant and casual nudity of the film, it often resolutely avoids simple exploitation: picking four young women as protagonists with their own agendas partially frees the film from the girls-gone-wild male gaze, and does much to increase the viewer’s uneasiness at the increasingly violent onscreen antics. Spring Breakers is designed to unsettle and play as societal horror, the excesses of the generation heralding an era of unbridled boozed-up nihilism. Scratch a normal college student, seems to suggest Korine, and a crazed criminal will come out, guns blazing. Alarmism at its finest, but the film does manage to become an impressionistic mash-up of ominous flash-forwards, sampled flashbacks and dissonant montages. From the first scene (featuring a pitch-perfect use of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, which makes sense given how Skrillex helped score the film), the film makes viewers bounces between the light and dark sides of hedonism, eventually scoring a crime spree to an acappella rendition of Britney Spears’s “Baby, One More Time” before juxtaposing a shootout with innocent flashback narration. Suffice to say that the usual fans of Vanessa Hugens, Selena Gomez and James Franco may be in for a bit of a shock –Franco, in particular, turns in a distinctive performance as a top-dog gangster. None of it is especially easy to watch, but the effect is more powerful than expected. Audiences with weak constitutions may not make it to the end –even seasoned viewers may be tempted to reach for the fast-forward button once in a while. Suffice to say that it’s a memorable viewing experience, even though its merits may be obscured by a lot of surface flash.

The Numbers Station (2013)

(On Cable TV, January 2014) I have a minor fondness for minimalist thrillers set in closed-off environments where characters race against the clock to find out important answers, and that’s essentially what The Numbers Station is: aside from one or two scenes of context and denouement, the entire plot works as a theatre piece as characters are stuck inside an isolated station, confronted with a mystery and besieged by enemies. John Cusack has another go at his stock “assassin grows a conscience” role, whereas Malin Akerman isn’t asked to do much as the requisite brainy damsel-in-distress. The plot is by-the-number, but the restricted scope makes it feel a bit more urgent, and while the film clearly takes place in an espionage fantasy-world where the CIA guns down people at will with impunity, it makes good use of stock elements. What’s less fortunate is that much of the computerized screens are nothing more than techno-gobbledygook, and that the limited sets do mean that the film repeats itself even within 90 minutes. Kasper Barfoed’s direction could have used a bit more energy, but the simplicity of the film does have the advantage of leanness. While The Numbers Station won’t find a huge audience, it’s an adequate film compared to other Direct-to-Video offerings, and one that is likely to pleasantly surprise a number of casual viewers.