(On TV, January 2015) The problem beyond movies that crank up their drama beyond a reasonable threshold is that they either become funny or annoying. Seven Pounds, to its credit, begins with a fascinating mystery: Who is this sad man, what has happened to him and what is he doing? As the protagonist’s actions are revealed, though, the overwrought drama kicks in. Are we being shamed in our loose morality by a fictional character so selfless? By the time the ending rolls by, even the most sympathetic viewers will spot at least two or three major holes in the plot, and it takes a lot of forgiveness to be moved by the film’s extreme sentimentality. Will Smith is actually pretty good in the lead role, stretching acting muscles seldom used during his career. Opposite him, Rosario Dawson is unexpectedly captivating, while Michael Ealy makes an impression in a small role. (One can’t say the same about Woody Harrelson, largely wasted in a generic role). Some of the details of the film are interesting, and Gabriele Muccino’s direction is handled with skill. Still, the impression left by the last few minutes of the film is one of increasing bewilderment, if not outright disbelief: By cranking up the dramatic stakes so ludicrously high, Seven Pounds undoes quite a bit of its careful quiet setup. I’m just not sure it deserves the ending it reaches for.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) It’s hard being an aging action star. Stallone seems unwilling to acknowledge that it’s happening to him, but Arnold Schwarzenegger seems to be trying a few strategies to remain in the game long after his retirement years. In Sabotage, he takes up guns and a leadership role as an alternative to fisticuffs and stunts, and he’s easily the best in an ensemble cast. Alas, he may also be the best things in a dirty violent thriller that seems delighted in its own gory nastiness. Sabotage is all about dirty special agents who have come to believe their own mystique and proceed, in the opening sequence, to try to rob Mexican gangsters out of a few million dollars. It doesn’t go well: one of them is killed on-site, prompting an official investigation. When no evidence of wrongdoing is found, the aging leader of the gang goes back to find a unit that has lost its morale. Thing seem to perk up as they train together, but then they all start dying one after another is a series of bloody murders. We’d probably care more about the mystery if the victims weren’t all hyper-aggressive killers –it takes a long time for a lawful character to be introduced, and even then all she can do is being duped and witness the carnage. The ending is very weak, although we’d told that the studio interfered and that the alternate endings available on the DVD are both stronger than the one that ended up in the theatrical release. Even then, Sabotage remains a far-too-violent routine thriller –much like for his previous Olympus Has Fallen, director Antoine Fuqua ought to lighten up a bit. In the meantime, it’s a perfectly acceptable entry in Schwarzenegger’s post-governorship career.
(On TV, January 2015) I watched Grown Ups 2 before its prequel, and no one will be surprised to learn that it didn’t make a bit of difference. The scripts is written so loosely as to shrug at continuity. This is a lazily-conceived film in which comedians get to practically play themselves on-screen, lounging around and telling lame jokes. Fans of those comedians will love seeing them play their persona (I’m a big fan of Chris Rock and Maya Rudolph and I liked seeing them on-screen, so this is speaking from personal experience) but otherwise there isn’t much substance here. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to an understanding about the appeal of Adam Sandler’s movies. They, simply put, are comfort movies. Dealing in archetypes and cheap jokes, they provide certainly and predictability. That may appear simplistic, but it’s not given that they can appeal even to those with nothing in common with their characters. Watching Grown Ups, I know exactly what I’m going to get, which values are being espoused, which stereotypes I will see on-screen. I become part of a larger society with well-understood rules and conventions. There’s comfort in not having to think, and understanding the context without making any effort. Again; I realize that this sounds arrogant, but it really isn’t: My take-away from Grown Ups is that it takes quite a bit of cleverness (much of it innate) to pull off its particular sense of comedy. I may not be stimulated by the result, but I can’t argue that it works. Alas, I also remember Grown Ups 2, and realize how much worse this formula can be.
(On TV, January 2015) I wish I had something substantial to say about this film… but I don’t. It’s a certainly follow-up to the original, and its best quality is how it manages to incorporate more of the “Furious Five” group in the story as opposed to an all-Panda show. (Angelina Jolie’s Tigress even get a few memorable moments that are authentically hers.) I have mixed feelings about how it goes back to the protagonist’s history in order to reveal another layer of hidden secrets –that kind of thing may deepen the series mythology, but it makes it all look interconnected to a degree that’s not always worth scrutiny. The action sequences, at least, aren’t too bad: there’s a chase set in an urban environment that’s dynamic and fun to a degree that wasn’t seen in the original. There is some very nice design work here that goes beyond the simple parody or homage to other movies, and it’s coupled with a tone that doesn’t seem as anachronistic as in the prequel. In the end, people who liked the first film a lot should also enjoy this one, and that’s almost all one asks of a sequel.
(On TV, January 2015) It’s hard to watch this romantic comedy about two young people having a physical relationship and trying not to fall in love and not think about 2011’s similarly-themed Friends with Benefits or Love & Other Drugs. It’s not a comparison that advantages No Strings Attached, which seems to be running at about half the speed and a quarter of the charm of the other film. Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutscher are likable, but they don’t do much –given how Portman usually manages to portray smarter characters, it’s a bit of let-down to see her, here, struggle with a fairly dull characters who never gets to explore the most interesting aspects of her personality. Kutcher is also stuck in a bland romantic lead role, not having much to do that be bewildered and say the right things. No Strings Attached is often frustrating because it does have interesting quirks and secondary characters who seem to have a lot more life than the protagonist and the main plot –the best scene of the film involves Portman’s roommates and an impromptu prank they play on Kutcher’s character, and it works because the film forgets about its main plot and simply goes with the absurdity of the gag. Lake Bell and Mindy Kaling are both wasted in small roles. It doesn’t help that the script isn’t particularly tight –there’s a pair of prologues that do very little in the remainder of the film, which seems inordinately pleased with its premise but unable to actually do anything with it beyond the usual romantic comedy clichés. To its credit, it’s not as if No Strings Attached is unlikable or exasperating –it’s just annoying in ways that the far-more-successful Friends with Benefits highlights with its more charismatic leads, better writing and tighter plotting. It’s not that you have a bad time watching the film as much as the certitude that you could have a better time.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) This is actually the second time that the infamous 1995 novel Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins has been adapted as a movie, but what’s interesting here is that this second adaptation focuses on a fairly narrow portion of the original novel: what happens to passengers on a transatlantic flight after the Rapture whisks away the righteous, leaving the sinners to fend for themselves. Compared to the novel, Left Behind quickly dispenses with the wider end-time context to focus on the captain of the flight (a generally restrained performance by Nicolas Cage) as everyone, in the air or on the ground, loses their minds trying to figure out what happened. It turns into a surprisingly conventional airplane-thriller in time for the harsh-landing ending, leaving for a sequel any mentions of the antichrist and assorted tribulations. The result may not be entirely credible, but it’s intriguing enough to see such a religious premise being dealt with in almost pure thriller terms. Even more surprising is the portrait of believers in the film: Many of them are annoying in their righteousness and proselytizing, and once the true believers have been raptured away, those who remain are exposed as frauds or being of insufficient faith. In short; compared to everything you may have heard about the book, Left Behind isn’t quite your expected fire-breathing radical religious tract. On the other hand, Left Behind does remain part of the much-maligned Christian-movie subgenre, and no amount of “wow, that’s interesting” considerations can quite patch the actual problems of the film: It’s cheaply-made, poorly written, ridiculous in its plotting (especially as father and daughter collaborate to bring an airplane down on a highway), wastes Nicolas Cage and doesn’t compare favorably to recent examples of airplane thrillers such as Snakes on a Plane or Non-Stop. I may be fascinated because I have read the book and can see the differences, but I expect that viewers who come to this film cold may not be as interested.
(On TV, January 2015) As someone who owned the entire run of Tintin graphic novels in childhood, I wasn’t able to watch this big-screen adaptation without a bit of a protective interest. Unfortunately, I had a hard time getting comfortable with the film: The character design had a distracting bobble-head quality that sent the whole film into the uncanny valley, and I never could quite reconcile the photorealism of the settings with the way the characters looked. Despite the quality of the animation, The Adventures of Tintin reminded me of the 2001 Final Fantasy film in that it never quite could manage to make its characters feel as if they matched their surroundings. This being said, the quality of Steven Spielberg’s direction eventually made me warm up to the entire result. There are a pair of fantastic action sequences that do much to make the film worthwhile: A water-and-fire naval engagement looks great, but more remarkably a lengthy one-shot action sequence featuring characters racing downhill that would be impossible to do without CGI and a lot of direction skills. What’s fortunate is that the script is actually not too bad: witty at times, definitely steeped into a pleasant tradition of adventure films at others. Many of the early Tintin characters and details are there for the fans, and the globe-trotting tradition of the series feels intact. The Adventures of Tintin doesn’t amount to much more than a big adventure… but that’s not a bad thing. Still, I just wish a slightly-different direction had been taken about the visual look of the characters.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) What a gloriously insane film this is. It’s not even worth being incensed about its use of the widely-debunked “using only 10% of our brains” nonsense, not when the counter keeps going up and the protagonist manages to gleefully ignore the laws of physics. Scarlett Johansson scores (after Her) another captivating performance in a film about the singularity, except that she’s the one going through it an attaining a post-human state by the time the credits roll. This being said, this is a film written and directed by Luc Besson, so it’s no use getting hung up on questions of coherence and subtlety hen he’s far more interested in marrying action-film kinetics with superhero flights of fancy. As a magical drug courses through our protagonist’s veins, the film makes less sense and becomes more fun, albeit in the “I can’t believe someone financed something this crazy” sense of fun. Compared to Transcendence, it’s got 10% of the brains but 100% more dynamism, and that “singularity for dummies” vibe definitely works to the film’s advantage. The directing moves fast (despite not being particularly well-directed –many of the so-called action scenes are a bit generic), and so does the story in an attempt not to have viewers think too hard about what’s happening. It reaches a joyously absurd conclusion with the secrets of the universe being made available on an USB key, but not before a trip back in time for a handshake with our progenitor. Whew! Morgan Freeman cashes an easy check as a scientist who just lectures and sees everything happening, but it’s really Scarlett Johansson who buffers her post-human action-heroine credentials in Lucy. As for the movie, it ain’t too smart, but it’s just crazy enough to work.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) X-Men: First Class was such an unexpected breath of fresh air, combining decent superhero action with a fizzy sixties setting, that it’s no surprise if follow-up Days of Future Past doesn’t do as well with its time-hopping but mostly-seventies era. The one big thing that this installment does well is in melding most of the threads from existing X-Men movies so far, picking and choosing its actors in order to refresh its continuity in a big sprawling universe. It’s common enough practice in the comic book world, but it’s one of the first films to do so in such an earnest fashion. While some of the set-pieces feel a bit cheap, Days of Future Past does hit the high points we’ve come to expect from the series: Mutant powers well-exploited (the standout sequence here being Quicksilver’s high-speed combat sequence), themes of alienation decently approached, charismatic actors with decent material (Hugh Jackman, as always, but also Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Peter Dinklage) and a steady forward narrative rhythm. In an increasingly cluttered superheroe movie universe, Days of Future Past manages to distinguish itself via a competent execution of a familiar formula. It could have been a bit better, but it’s already good enough that there’s not much room to complain.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I am not a big fan of self-conscious artistic cinema, so I ask for forgiveness if my appreciation of Under the Skin is muted. I prefer clearly articulated plots to the kind of make-your-own-meaning exemplified in this film, as devoid as it can be of dialogue or unambiguity. The film often indulges in lengthy shots that may or not may mean on or many more things. What I took from it is; Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in Scotland who does terrible things to people, mostly men, that she picks up. When she develops empathy, she runs away, is pursued by a helper, figures out that she’s nowhere near being human and suffers the consequences of hate. At least I think that’s it – the film is made as such to provoke countless different interpretations, and if you’re not in the mood for that kind of shenanigans then stay away. My own patience was sorely tested (the grim shaky-cam cinematography didn’t help), although I can’t deny that some sequences are powerful in their own. (That beach scene…. Argh.) Johansson here seems determined to undermine her beautiful-girl persona, stripping away all layers of seductiveness until we get to the repellent reptilian core under the skin. (She does have one or two naked scenes in the film, and they are as far away from eroticism as you can get.) Director Jonathan Glazer is doing his own thing with this film, eschewing even basic storytelling foundations in favor of something far more experimental, hermetic and surreal. Under the Skin is a harsh puzzle rather than straight-up entertainment and while I’m not the best audience for that kind of movie-making, I can appreciate Johansson’s bravey in taking a role that riffs so effectively from her usual image. I wouldn’t want all SF films to be as abstract at this one, but once in a while isn’t too bad. This being said, I’m not watching Under the Skin again any time soon; once is bad enough.
(On TV, January 2015) I’m slowly getting up to speed on the comedy landmarks of the past decade, and Knocked Up certainly looms large on the list of unmissable films that I had managed to miss. I’m not a big fan of Judd Apatow’s school of crude observational comedies: Their scripts feel loose, the laughs a bit weak, and far too many of the premises are based on cringe-worthy material. I simply don’t identify with the result. Knocked Up is, in many ways, an encapsulation of it all as it studies the aftermath of a one-night stand between a pot-addled slacker (Seth Rogen, who else?) and a wound-up career woman (Katherine Heigl, in something near a career high). It does have the merit to use laughs as a way to address a complicated scenario, and in ways that won’t fail to resonate (even faintly) with any couple. It can also boast of a cast of supporting that would become, later on, a credible who’s-who of American comedy films, from Paul Rudd to Jason Segel to Kristen Wiig to Jonah Hill to Ken Jeong to Jay Baruchel and so on. There are poignant moments and silly laughs all wrapped up in a film that is daring enough to be noticeable, but not so much as to turn everyone against it: Traditional family values are espoused despite the raunchy details. Still, the film feels long and meandering at times, and I’m at the stage in my life where I see the fable of “shlubby nerd gets hot girl” as more toxic than empowering. (To summarize endless pages of hard-earned diatribes that go well beyond the scope of this review, my messages to my younger fellow nerds isn’t “be yourself and something magical will happen” but “grow up; it’s good for you”.) But back on track: Knocked Up may not be everyone’s cup of tea (the sexism is undeniable and the stoner-chic movement has to go away), but it is a films of cultural significance when put alongside the films it drew from and those it inspired. That’s something I’m willing to concede, even if I may not be the best public for its kind of laughs.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) The biggest problem with the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was that it was hard to justify its existence barely a decade after its inspiration. This sequel doesn’t have as much to do in order to justify its existence: We’ve been reintroduced to Peter Parker and now we get to look at how his story develops in a different direction. Andrew Garfield is still quite likable as the superhero in disguise, whereas Emma Stone also still coasts on her charm to sell an under-written character. The action sequences certain shows how progresses in special effects can allow filmmakers to present even bigger and better visuals on-screen: the opening chase sequence, taking place at breakneck speed in a brightly lit New York City, is a small marvel of super-powered heroics that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. While the return of the Green Goblin as an antagonist feels safe and conventional, the use of Electro is a little bit more interesting. This film, of course, has to do what the previous trilogy didn’t want to in showcasing a traumatic moment in Spider-Man history and while it’s difficult not to applaud this difficult dramatic choice, it’s also one that is blatantly foreshadowed in almost everything that happens prior to it. You can almost count down the seconds before it happens. Does this in any way justify the film? Sure, but not too much: we could have gone without it, and (BREAKING GEEKY NEWS!) the announcement that the next few Spider-Man films, to be developed with Marvel Studios, will ignore this misguided reboot don’t do much to justify those instantly-disposable films. Director Marc Webb should be doing other better things with his time anyway. But such is the age of the mega-buster nowadays: full of wonders, empty of meaning and so scrapped and forgotten a year later.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) I have a high tolerance for dumb comedies, so it takes a quite a bit to make one tip into irritation. Sadly, The Internship occasionally manages to do so in a way that seems particularly counterproductive to its goals. The story is straight out of the kind of aging fratboy fantasies fulfilled by Vince Vaughn’s persona: Here are a couple of ordinary middle-aged salesmen abruptly taking on an internship at tech giant Google, where their initial sense of estrangement will eventually give way to pride as their knowledge of how to have fun and cut loose will teach valuable life lessons to the young nerds around them. If you’re thinking anti-Revenge of the Nerds, then you’re on the right track: in better hands, this could have been a poignant exploration of the irrelevance of traditional man-child values at a time where technological knowledge and intellectualism is in vogue. But with Vaughn not only starring, but writing and producing, you can bet that this is not the case. This is about bringing party back, about telling the nerds to loosen up and finding relevance at a time where arrested development isn’t funny. My idiosyncratic reaction to all of that, being of the nerdish persuasion, is predictably irritated. The script isn’t much more than tired retreads on a familiar structure and brain-damaged sequences, which isn’t much of a surprise considering the pedigree of Vaughn and Shawn Levy as writers. The real question here is why Google allowed the film such generous use of its corporate identity: I suppose that, in Goldman’s term, nobody knew anything about how the film would turn out. All of this being said and having established that The Internship can occasionally be as obnoxious as Vaughn’s persona, there are a few saving moment here and there: There is a good restaurant sequence between Owen Wilson and Rose Byrne as they race through a decade’s worth of bad dates in a minute, Tiya Sircar has a small but striking role as the nerd-girl who know everything but has done nothing and Aasif Mandvi also distinguish himself as the putative voice of reason. Still, that’s not a whole lot to save a film. On its own as a mediocre comedy, The Intership would be barely worth a mention. As a none-too-witty aggression over nerd values couched in a Google advertisement, well, it’s obnoxious in ways that seem worse than the sum of its parts.
(On TV, January 2015) The nice thing about high-concept romantic comedies is that their failure mode is relatively innocuous: Even when they don’t work, they’re sort-of-enjoyable to watch as long as the lead actors are well cast. That’s definitely the case with The Proposal, an uneven romantic comedy featuring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Both of them play roles familiar to them: As a high-powered publishing executive, it’s not hard to see in Bullock’s performance echoes of Miss Congeniality. As a charming but long-suffering assistant, Reynolds here best plays his romantic lead archetype; sometimes-cocky yet almost irresistibly affable behind his chipmunk grin. Despite (or because) the 12-year age difference, both of them play well with each other –with extra grins given that he’s a Canadian playing an American whereas she’s an American playing a Canadian. They chemistry goes a long way in overcoming the frequent shortcomings of the film, from an Alaskan setting straight out of the East coast, a structure that feels forced to go back to New York for its conclusion, or an unnerving fascination for Oscar Nunez’s obnoxious character all the way to the end credit sequence. Some of the farce is obvious: sometimes it works almost despite itself (such as for the laboriously set-up nude scene), sometimes it just flops around curiously, asking for laughs and not getting any (such as; have we mentioned Oscar Nunez’s character?). At least Bullock and Reynolds are almost always there on-screen, earning sympathy despite an imperfect script. That makes The Proposal worth a look even when it doesn’t reach its fullest potential –what’s not to like about the sumptuous setting, or the fun of hanging out with two likable leads?
(On Cable TV, January 2015) The floor has fallen so low under expectations for parody films in the wake of half a dozen disastrous Feidberg/Setzer abominations (including the similar The Starving Games), that The Hungover Games doesn’t feel all that bad despite, in fact being remarkably crummy. Part of the fun, at least in the first half-hour, is in seeing the film set up a preposterous mash-up of The Hunger Games and The Hangover, somehow managing to do so with a bit of style. The three lead actors bear a remarkable resemblance to the stars of The Hangover (Ben Begley and Herbert Russell are particularly good as “Ed” and “Zach”, while Rita Volk does fine as a Katniss knock-off), and the special effects are noticeably better than what one could expect from a film with such a low budget. There are occasional flashes of wit in the way it actually does try to comment upon Hollywood stereotypes. There is acknowledged unnecessary nudity, a trio of Johnny Depp impersonators, a bargain-basement version of Ted and an attempt at a storyline. (Added metafictional points for having a character figure out their situation with Suzanne Collins’ book in hand) Things get a bit worse in the last half, as the story peters out into a dream sequence (OR WAS IT???), an extended unfunny underage sex gag, fewer returns on the initial investment and far too much reliance on The Hunger Games’ plot. But it’s a notch better than The Starving Games, and at this point I’ll take it. Serious movie viewers may want to abstain, but those with a low threshold for dumb fun may enjoy bits and pieces of The Hungover Games.