(Netflix Streaming, June 2015) How fitting that one of the thematic threads in Saw III be the tension between sadism and redemption. In the universe of the film, we get an argument between the lead villain (who does allow for extreme redemption) and his apprentice (who would rather kill in gruesome ways), which finds an echo in the tribulations of a putative protagonist offered the chance to take revenge upon the killer of his son and the enablers that let him walk free. But in a wider context, redemption and forgiveness make for lousy horror franchises: The Saw series is built upon grimy traps, gruesome deaths, gross-outs and twisted revenge. While I would personally like the series to err more frequently on the side of the compassion it professes to embrace, we know that this wouldn’t sustain a fan base big enough to allow for seven installments. Part of the proof is in the way Saw III casually kills its recurring characters, forbids the rescue of its imperilled victims (all the way to a hilariously contrived shotgun blast) and embraces humanity’s infuriating penchant for self-harm. Having seen bits and pieces of the next two films in the series a while ago, I found myself intrigued by the appearance of various plot hooks (and throwaway characters) used by latter installments in the series, and a bit captivated by the decaying atmosphere of the film and its dynamic direction. I’m not as amused by the gore, the meanness or the nihilism of the series’ attitude, but then again I’m not really part of the horror audience courted by the series. And while I’m curious about the three other installments in the series that I haven’t yet seen, I have a feeling that waiting a while between films is the best approach.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2015) It’s an unconventional compliment to say that a film is intensely uncomfortable to watch, but then again Hard Candy is the kind of unconventional film that covets this reaction. A thriller almost taking place in a single location between two characters, Hard Candy pairs off a creepy photographer who may or may not have something to do with the death of a young girl, and a teenage vigilante with psychological terror on her mind. Castration is involved, so male viewers will spend much of the film with their legs crossed. A curious (and frustrating) lack of wide shots reinforces the hermetic claustrophobia of the film, which often feels like an intense ping-pong match between skilled players. Patrick Wilson makes a mark as the creepy photographer (fortunately, he has since had enough roles to avoid typecasting), but it’s Ellen Paige who earns almost all of the attention (despite a few too-showy moments) as a driven teenage avenger. Hard Candy is very effective and successful at meeting its goals, but viewers may be forgiven for thinking that the film is a bit too long, and finding out that there’s not really any character to feel sympathy for. Combined with the unsettling cinematography, Hard Candy thus remains a bit distant –which may not be a bad thing given the intensity of its thrills.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) The good thing about today’s movie universe is that it has never been easier for just about any determined filmmaker to grab decent-quality filmmaking equipment and shoot their own movies. This also works for experienced filmmakers, who can indulge their creative urges with smaller projects for specific audiences. Sadly, this is also making it harder to stop projects that maybe shouldn’t have been completed. So it is that Kevin Smith can riff off a ridiculous premise in a podcast and, months later, complete a project based on that rant, about a hapless podcaster being tortured into becoming a walrus for a madman’s own purposes. The wonders of modern filmmaking! Of course, the problem for end-result Tusk is that even though it tries hard to be a comedy/horror hybrid, it’s neither funny nor scary. Just gross and pitiful, with a big side-order of boring. Justin Long is neither good nor bad as the protagonist: while Long-the-actor is naturally likable, his character is obnoxious enough to shut down any nascent sympathy for his fate. Tusk is self-aware enough to have joke casting (such as having Johnny Depp in a supporting role without crediting him, or featuring Depp’s and Smith’s daughters in small roles), but as with most of the film’s characteristics, the final result is slight enough as to make everything seem pointless. If Tusk had been a better film, I would have a few nice things to say about the dialogue, the fractured chronology, some directorial choices or Michael Parks’ performance. But it’s pointless, grotesque and interminable even at 90 minutes. Even the Canadian content left me less than enthusiastic (the badly-translated French doesn’t help). I’m not opposed to dumb midnight-movies, but Tusk is not a good example of the form. And if Kevin Smith’s career is headed in the direction of increasingly-hermetic fan-service goofs, then I’m happy to let him go there and never look again; after all there are plenty of other filmmakers doing far more interesting things with the means at their disposal.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) I don’t think anyone can claim that Secret Window is a great thriller, but it’s a pretty enjoyable one in its own ludicrous way and I’m sorry it took me more than a decade to see it for myself. What makes the film almost-instantly recognizable as adapted from a Stephen King story is its focus on elements dear to King’s body of work: the writer-protagonist, the emphasis on the process of writing, the bloody escalation of horror, the gruesome violence, the touch of meta-fiction… Misery may top the list of typical-King movies, but Secret Window comes close. Johnny Depp is enjoyable as the writer-protagonist: his relatively normal performance here seems even more remarkable now that he has settled in a post-Jack Sparrow rut of eccentric characters. Writer/director David Koepp knows how to keep things interesting, and the gradually deepening mystery of the film eventually gives way to full psychological and then physical horror as the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. While the ending may repeat a crucial few lines once too often, the coda is pitch-black enough to make a mark. It’s not a respectable film, it’s not even a memorable film, but Secret Window is more than good enough to be interesting.
(In French, Video on Demand, June 2015) Even without being overly familiar with the children-book source material, I can report that Paddington works well as a film: It’s an absolutely charming surprise. Whimsical, sweet, good-natured and visually inventive, it manages to create a contemporary version of a walking-talking teddy bear without coming across as overly sweet or manipulative. It’s a tricky balance, but the film pulls it off. The special effects are good enough that at no time do viewers have any reason to question the existence of Paddington. Ben Whishaw brings a lot to our ursine protagonist through his voice performance, while Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are instantly likable as the heads of the family that take in Paddington. Nicole Kidman also makes an impression in a fairly rare role as an antagonist, although her evil character sometimes feel out-of-place in an otherwise good-natured film. Writer/director Paul King should get most of the credit for the success of the film, not only for a charming screenplay, but also for visual flights of fancy that establish its unique atmosphere–the flybys through the cutaway Brown family home are a highlight, but several other sequences are executed in a remarkably original fashion. Funny, heartwarming, instantly-accessible and a pure delight, Paddington should please anyone within sight of the screen it’s playing on.
(On DVD, June 2015) Well, I’m torn: What happens when you try to review a decently-made film that practically sanctifies someone who’s done something really, really stupid? I’m not much for the whole “throw away your shackles, take a hike, enjoy life” narrative: I think we’re made stronger by being part of a civilization with rules, ties and obligations. I’m not against traveling and having new experiences, but seeing the protagonist of Into the Wild give away his money, sever ties with his family, spout incoherent feel-good nonsense and head away from civilization in such a way as to sacrifice any chance of survival doesn’t make for a hero. And yet, Into the Wild is captivating. Sean Penn’s directorial debut is heartfelt, benefits enormously from location shooting, knows how to best use its actors (Emile Hirsch steals the show as the protagonist, but even Vince Vaughn has an uncharacteristic role) and manages to make even its most depressing moments mean something almost profound. It does suffer from its length, though: clocking in at a far too long two hours and a half, Into the Wild often feels as if it’s waiting for something else and seems even longer given the dumb decisions made by the so-called hero of the story. At the end, I’m more saddened by the film than uplifted by its attempt to glorify a series of bad decision by someone who may have had significant mental issues. Have I liked Into the Wild, or not?
(On TV, June 2015) I quite like Jay Baruchel’s neurotic screen persona, but a little bit of it goes a long way, and with rare exceptions (I’m thinking about The Trotsky, itself far from being a conventional film), he’s best used in supporting roles than leading ones. She’s Out of my League can justify his presence by squarely tackling the issue of romantic partners with mismatched looks, but the sub-par quality of the script does Baruchel no favours despite his better-than-average comic timing. Torn between conventional (if gender-bent) romantic comedy trappings, raunchy comedy and attempts at observational wit, She’s Out of my League seems stuck in an uncomfortable place where the crass jokes (and there’s one of them that’s far better in the adulterated G-rated trailer than in the frank R-rated film) sabotage whatever else the film may be trying to say. I’m not entirely comfortable with the film’s conflation of middle-grade beauty and slovenliness (which plays along the common Apatowesque comedy construct of unattractive males attracting beautiful girls for unspecified reasons and not much work) or even, heck, the very notion of various levels of attractiveness. The film may deconstruct the notion of “levels” late in its running time, but it goes so half-heartedly… after basing near an hour’s worth of material on it. There’s definitely something in She’s Out of my League what could have been explored, but I’m not sure that what’s in the film qualifies as the best possible exploitation of it. To its credit, She’s Out of my League could have been much, much worse: it does have its heart at the right place, and avoids a lot of the misogyny that could have sprung from its premise. But the result still feels off-centre, superficial even when it aims for a bit of profundity.
(On TV, June 2015) Few romantic dramas manage to straddle the unexpected line between creepy and romantic as thoroughly as P.S. I Love You. It’s the kind of high-concept romantic premise (a dead man leaves a series of messages for his surviving spouse) that seems as horrifying as it could be sweet. While the film does manage a few nice surprises (such as a non-chronological structure and a conclusion that doesn’t rush to a romantic coupling), it’s still a bit off-putting, rather long and not entirely convincing in the details it uses to fill the blanks in its structure. Hilary Swank is, somehow, not particularly well-suited to a romantic lead role, and neither is Gerard Butler –despite generally likable performances, they don’t quite seem to click as well as they should. Lisa Kudrow and Harry Connick Jr. are also in the same boat: they do what they can with the material they’re given, but we know they’re capable of much more. Ultimately, though, much of P.S. I Love You feels heavily manipulated by the author/screenwriter’s whims, leading to plot points that don’t seem to happen organically. That’s sort-of-forgivable in romantic comedies, but not so much in attempted tearjerkers.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Anyone would be forgiven for thinking, upon reading The Forger’s plot summary (“Ex-con forger does one last job”) that this would be a heist crime thriller. But the film itself is a bit more nuanced; it’s got a lot more family drama than criminal action as a convicted forger voluntarily agrees to a dangerous heist in order to spend time with his dying son. There’s a lot of family bonding, some heart-breaking sequences (such as when the son’s estranged mom, hopelessly addicted to drugs, manages to hold it together and pass herself off for normal during a one-day reunion), considerations on how to forge a painting, and a lot of John Travolta brooding on-screen as the titular protagonist. In other words, The Forger is its own kind of movie, heavier on drama than thrills, the likes of which doesn’t fit in today’s all-spectacular theatrical ecosystem. Travolta does pretty good work in a role far less flashy and far more brooding than he’s usually asked to play. The film itself feels a bit dull and unfocused (the heist itself feels like an afterthought), but that may just be a reflection of how today’s audiences have been conditioned to accept more flash and a consistent tone throughout an entire film. For a similar experience in selecting a genre picture that turns out to be a drama, also see Mark Whalberg’s The Gambler.
(In French, On Blu-Ray, June 2015) I may be late in seeing Disney blockbuster Mulan, but in other ways I was ready for it, having seen enough of the other “Disney Princess” movies to show how different Mulan is and isn’t. The good news, and the reason to celebrate the film, is how much stuff it dares to tackle: Asian themes and setting, issues of identity, family, honor, actualization, cross-dressing, war… We’re quite a distance away from the simplistic motivations of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, here. The animation is impressive, the level of detail is astonishing and Mulan, as a heroine, is far more rounded than most of her co-princesses. It’s a big story well-told. On the other hand, I found the animal comic relief to be jarring: While Mulan will agonize about family honor during one scene, the animal sidekicks will ham it up one moment later. The film would have been stronger without them. Still, Mulan remains a remarkable achievement – it’s not part of the Disney Renaissance for nothing. While probably a little bit too much (too violent, too complex, too specific) for the younger kids, it’s often far more interesting to adults than most Disney animated features.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) Seemingly designed for maximum cuteness, Austeland plays with the tropes of romantic comedies as a lovelorn American heads to England to visit a Jane Austen-themed park, where she’ll spend a week in an idealized historical setting where romance is guaranteed. Of course, it becomes hard to distinguish between reality and fiction once the romances start piling up. Austenland benefits considerably from Keri Russell’s charm and Jennifer Coolidge’s over-the-top comic timing, but it’s the intertwining of romantic tropes and how they play out in the multiple realities of the theme park that really drive the plot and the interest of the film. Austenland certainly isn’t perfect: There’s something off in its low-budget staging (the park is definitely underwhelming once we get there: is there all it is to it?), lack of laughs in favour of knowing chuckles and ultimate adherence to rom-com clichés. Fortunately, romantic comedy clichés are such that they don’t leave much of a sour taste when they’re reinforced –Austenland isn’t entirely successful, but it’s partially successful in a genre that is very forgiving of imperfection. It’s a likable film, light and insubstantial but easy to watch and utterly sympathetic. Twilight haters may want to note abashedly that Stephenie Meyer co-produced the film and so helped make it come in existence.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Are we ever going to get enough of Liam Neeson as an action hero? Maybe not just yet, especially when he can elevate straight-up genre material with a good performance. In Run All Night, he plays a little bit more downtrodden than usual as a Mob enforcer far past his prime, reduced to playing Santa Claus for his boss’ family in order to pay his heating repair bills. He is being kept around out of loyalty by the Big Boss (Ed Harris), but when things heat up and his estranged son kills the Boss’ son, the usual rules don’t apply and what follows is a night-long chase through New York, as organized crime, hired assassins and the police all try to find our heroes. It gets a bit complex at times, but the point is seeing Liam Neeson’s character regain his dignity and (once again) save his family from harm. Director Jaume Collet-Serra seems a bit more restrained than usual here, although the frantic Google-Earth-inspired scene transitions give a taste of his trademark directorial insanity. There are no crazy plot twists, though, as Run All Night remains a straightforward crime thriller, all the way to a relatively conventional ending. It’s not quite as compelling as other Liamspoilation movies, but there’s undeniable satisfaction in seeing Neeson face off against Harris (even if mostly by phone) in a grim dark thriller with some thematic depth. It probably could have been a bit better – Joel Kinnaman is a charisma void in one of the film’s major roles and the script could have used a bit of tightening up. Neeson can do better, Collet-Serra can do better, we viewers can do better. But as far as such crime thrillers go, it’s a solid middle-of-the-road effort.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually find Vince Vaughn annoying, which is not really a good portent when watching a film built around him. But this time around, Vaughn looks as if he’s slowly stretching out of his overgrown frat-boy persona as a family man heading out for a crucial business trip. I’m not suggesting that his humor is any more mature than his usual shtick – but in Unfinished Business, he shows signs that he’s at least trying to play his age. It helps that hi co-stars, Tom Wilkinson as a sex-obsessed pre-retiree and Dave Franco as a too-dumb-to-live youngster, take up a lot of his usual immaturity routine. The result isn’t necessarily a good movie: Unfinished Business is dumb even by Vaughn standards, with crude humor sabotaging whatever emotional core the film tries to build as foundation. But it’s unsatisfying for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with Vaughn himself, and that’s already an improvement over much of his filmography. As for Unfinished Business, what’s to mention? A good small role for Nick Frost. Far more nudity (of both genders) than you’d expect. A far too long time-jump at the end of the prologue. I suppose that the film’s biggest flaw is how it unsuccessfully tries to navigate a middle-road between family-friendly sentiment and outrageous raunchiness. Unfinished Business feels padded despite a short running time and while the basic laughs are there, there’s also a sense that it should be much better.
(In French, on Blu-Ray, June 2015) It’s really not productive to start nit-picking about the anachronistic introduction of dinosaurs into the Ice Age universe in Dawn of the Dinosaurs: In an animated comedy series featuring talking ice-age animals that are already anachronistically mixed, there’s a double or triple degree of unreality that is useless to contest. We might rather enjoy how the series suddenly develops colors, uses its newly-found new world for ever-more-expansive action sequences and even introduces a memorable character (Simon Pegg’s turn as the deliriously tough “Buck”). Plus: extra earworm points for reviving “Walk the Dinosaur”. I still dislike the aesthetics of the series, its low-wit comedy, the over-developed action sequences and the broad obvious character arcs. But it is recognizably an Ice Age film, with the expected highlights going to Scrat (here temporarily paired off with Scratte, until the inevitable return to his true nutty love.) It’s almost instantly forgettable as “another instalment in the series”, although the dinosaurs do help make it more visually distinctive than the second film in the series.
(In French, on Blu-Ray, June 2015) I still think that the Ice Age series is duller than it ought to be, but I can certainly appreciate how the third and fourth instalment try shaking things up. In Continental Drift’s case, the series goes out to sea, with a plot that involves a lot of water and a bunch of pirates. Yes, pirates. Ice age pirates. It may sound like a big ball of nonsense, but it does lead to a big grand adventure featuring the usual characters of the series, with new voice actors such as Jennifer Lopez joining the fun. It’s not particularly sophisticated from a plotting viewpoint, but it doesn’t need to be: the action sequences are big and broad, everyone has something to do (miracles of miracles, Sid is almost less annoying this time around) and there are easy gags everywhere. For a series reaching a fourth installment, Ice Age is still keeping terminal ennui at bay. Granted, it didn’t have very high standards to begin with, but it seems to be meeting its own goals so far, and the film does look reasonably entertaining for the kids. By this installment, everyone know what to expect.