(In French, On TV, October 2015) I’m always fascinated by the oddball pockets of pop-culture history, and The Boat the Rocked revolves around something I didn’t know about—the pirate radio stations that broadcast rock music from the seas surrounding Great Britain in the late sixties and early seventies. Writer/director Richard Curtis fashions an ensemble comedy from various anecdotes and music of the era, never sticking too close to reality (thus introducing anachronisms that even colonials will be able to spot) but delivering a moderately entertaining film with an unexpectedly spectacular conclusion. The film begins as a young man makes his way to such a seaborne pirate station, meeting its various eccentric DJs and getting a close look at the government’s efforts to shut down the pirates. Numerous amusing moments follow. The cast is filled with known names goofing off, from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unabashedly American DJ to owner Bill Nighy to Nick Frost as a sex-obsessed cad. Rock Music is at the heart of the film, so you can expect a great soundtrack. (Fortunately, the French version of the film retains the original music, which compensates somewhat for the loss of the original actors’ voices.) The Boat That Rocked does take a turn for the unexpectedly dramatic toward the end, providing a big-scale conclusion to a film that seemed happy without such spectacle until then. It mostly manages to hit its target, but there is a gnawing sense that the film isn’t as good as it could have been given its subject matter and capable actors. The sprawling ensemble cast gets difficult to distinguish aside from the name actors, and the episodic one-anecdote-after-another nature of the film doesn’t help it feel more coherent. This being said, I’ll note that I saw a French-language dub of the American version of the film (“Pirate Radio”), which reportedly runs twenty minutes shorter than the original British version – I’m not sure that more material would help the film (which already feels sprawling), but it does feel as if something is missing. Still, The Boat the Rocked is more than worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a music-heavy comedy.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) My loathing at the robotic aesthetics and the awful scripts of the Transformers series is only matched by my curiosity at its visual effects and how low the series will sink. I knew I wouldn’t enjoy the experience, but I had to take at least a look. So it is that I purposefully made an effort to see Transformers: Age of Extinction in the worst possible conditions: on my phone’s tiny screen, wearing crappy headphones (usually only one earbud), watching a few minutes in bed as the last thing I did before going to sleep. Given that the film weighs in at 2h45, it took days –most of them ending with “Ah, I can’t be bothered any more… zzzz.” Unfortunately, my scheme may have backfired, because taking in such a big movie in bite-sized increments minimized the accumulation of stupidity and incoherence that could have been lethal had I seen the film in one big gulp. The small screen and tinny sound minimized the audio-visual aggression, making the experience ironically more pleasant. I can’t properly express how powerfully dumb the script actually is: I would describe the scene in which a twentysomething character patiently explains (card in hand) why it’s not illegal for him to date the 17-year-old daughter of the protagonist and you would not believe that such a scene made it in a two-hundred-million-dollar-plus movie. I’d describe the nonsense that passes for plot, the contortions the film takes in order to film in China (thus ensuring healthy Chinese box-office revenue) or the wretched dialogue and characterization given to the supposedly-heroic Autobots but it doesn’t really matter, doesn’t it? This is about action scenes, grand images, swooping cameras and state-of-the-art special effects. And, praise being given properly, everyone has to acknowledge that Michael Bay’s style remains just as effective: he presents Midwest America as if it was a heroic succession of golden corn fields, somehow manages to keep a film of that logistical magnitude under control and finds ways to maximize the dramatic potential of everything on the table. Too bad he can’t focus, simplify or sustain – but as I’ve said, watching ten-minute snippets for two weeks can lessen the pain. The point here isn’t to determine whether Transformers: Age of Extinction is a bad film or not (it most assuredly is), but how to make it feel less awful in order to watch it to the end. As much as it’s designed to be an all-out widescreen 3D assault on the senses, the way to rebel is to refuse it all the crutches it needs in order to reveal it for the hollow shell it is: small screen, bad sound, confused fatigue and short attention span it is. That’s called leveling down. I’m sure that a sequel will follow, although I rest assured that it’s still a nightmare a few years in the future.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) I actually wanted to like this film, and for its first half-hour or so, I thought it was leading somewhere interesting. The Congress (very loosely adapted from a Stanislaw Lem story) starts of promisingly by playing games with audiences, as Robin Wright is “Robin Wright”, a difficult actress offered a digitization contract by a Hollywood studio. Accepting means that she will relinquish all rights to her performances while the studio uses her likeness in as many movies as they want. So far so good, with Hollywood in-jokes butting heads against ideas about the future of cinema and the toll taken on actors. But then The Congress jumps twenty years in the future, going from live-action of animation and getting dizzier by the moment. What follows gets wilder, although less interesting as the sense of “anything can happen” almost negates the emotional stakes of the film. After a good start, The Congress loses steam, doubles back on itself, gets more depressing as it advances and makes a mess out of provocative ideas. Wright herself isn’t to blame: the script should have been able to tie up its premise with a great deal more wit and coherence. The Congress, to be fair, isn’t the only recent SF film to start promisingly and end in a bid puddle of nonsense. (Also see: The Zero Theorem) But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) The gift of romantic comedies is to make us believe in suspense even when there can’t be. That, unfortunately, can lead to strange decisions such as stretching out a forgone conclusion several minutes after it should be done. But that’s only one of Leap Year’s mistakes, as it sets up typical romantic-comedy contrivances to make sure that Amy Adams’s character finds true love rather than the bland sterile life promised by her materialistic fiancé. In order to do so, we spend most of the film in a version of Ireland heavy in clichés and familiar story beats, at the mercy of a cranky young man (Matthew Goode, dependably competent) who will never-ever-ever fall for the protagonist. The Irish fetishism gets to be a bit too much at times. Much of Leap Year feels on autopilot, especially as the initial frictions between the characters predictably give way to romantic attraction. Both Adams and Goode are sympathetic in their roles, but they are not good enough to forgive the rest of this bland romantic comedy. Leap Year actually builds such a reservoir of resentment at some point that as it busies itself through an unnecessary conclusion, bored audiences become amenable to the idea that Adams characters should return to America and settle down with her boyfriend, if only it could make the film end sooner. Leap Year isn’t terrible, but it’s not very good either in a genre where seeing one film means seeing almost all of them.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) I’m genuinely perplexed at Evan Almighty, and not for any single one reason. I’m perplexed, for instance, at the film’s insistence at tying itself to Bruce Almighty through a tenuous set of coincidences (as in; a minor character of the first film becoming a congressman and seemingly changing personalities entirely –this makes more sense when you know that the script was developed as its own thing and was then retrofitted to become part of a series) I’m perplexed at the guts it must have taken to take an explicitly religious topic (as in; God telling the protagonist to build an ark, because a flood is coming) and turn it in an expensive special-effects-driven mainstream comedy film. I’m perplexed at the inclusion of political content in the story. I’m perplexed at the way the film builds itself up to a biblical catastrophe… only to deliver a relatively modest disaster. I’m perplexed at the practical scale of the film’s sets… and the moderate results delivered by the script. Thanks to Steve Carrell and director Tom Shadyac, Evan Almighty does have its share of comic moments, although it has just as many exasperating scenes and lulls as the film underlines everything two or three times. It doesn’t help that the story aims for profundity but falls into mediocrity: For all of its sanctimonious attitude, Evan Almighty forgets that audiences will forgive anything in an entertaining film, and condemn everything in a dull one. Evan Almighty has serious tonal issues (Wanda Sykes is relatively entertaining, but she seems to be playing in a different film than Morgan Freeman) and scatters itself in too many directions to be successful. The result is, as I’ve mentioned, perplexing: Why does this movie exist, and what exactly were they trying to accomplish with it?
(On TV, October 2015) Some films age worse than others, and Stigmata certainly is one of them. Granted, it wasn’t a good movie in 1999 and it’s still not a good movie now, but there’s a frantic nature to Stigmata’s direction and editing that smacks of late-nineties style, right after Avid consoles made the process easier but before everyone calmed down enough to make responsible use of it. It also blurs with quasi-contemporary Catholicism-horror film End of Days (both of them even feature Gabriel Byrne, and he looks lost in both), a comparison that does the film not favor when it’s so unremarkable. Here, the mythology is a hodgepodge of heretic Catholicism, good-old demonic possession, bad horror clichés and moody direction that exasperates more than it efficiently tells a story. The film goes crazy with rapid-fire editing and loud music the moment something supernatural happens, and the result isn’t to make us pay more attention (or even scare us) as much as it’s to make us wish for it to end more quickly. I’m not sure if the dull script or director Rupert Wainwright’s work (or good-old classic studio interference) is most to blame for the uninspiring result. Patricia Arquette does turn in a respectable performance with a strong physical component, but the rest of Stigmata can’t do it justice. Ultimately, some movies are better off forgotten.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) I may have been expecting too much of Tomorrowland. Seeing Brad Bird’s name as a director may have led to inflated expectations. (Although those should have bene tempered by seeing Damon Lindelof as one of the writers). Still, seeing the results, I’m not entirely convinced that high expectations are the only problem: For a film that consciously tries to promote a better future than the post-apocalyptic clichés we see so often these days, Tomorrowland can feel naïve, elitist and half-witted. (Contemplate the quote “…what would happen, if all the geniuses, the artists, the scientists, the smartest, most creative people in the world decided to actually change it? (…) They’d need a place free from politics and bureaucracy, distractions, greed – a secret place where they could build whatever they were crazy enough to imagine.” and tell me what could go wrong with this idea.) What’s more, it barely exists within its own story: The standout sequence of the film, an uninterrupted two-minute glimpse at a better tomorrow, is revealed to be an advertisement, and the climax is barely more than another fight next to an evil radio transmitter. There are, admittedly, some great moments on the way to the dull conclusion: A few wonderfully kinetic action sequences filled with tactile details; a steampunk detour in Paris; a cranky performance by George Clooney. But the script feels unfinished, episodic, filled with dumb ideas that don’t even sustain a first look. (Have I told you about the aging man with a crush on an under-age robot? Because, yes, that’s in here.) The elitist leanings of the film’s philosophy are annoying to anyone who even has a coherent idea of how the world works, and even worse –it feels like the kind of dumb elitism that gifted teenagers usually outgrow in college. Even for those who are enthusiastically supportive of the “envision a better tomorrow” idea at the core of Tomorrowland, the film itself becomes its own worst advocate, and none of Bird’s directing flourishes can help a deeply flawed script. And while you may think that “arguing about a film’s philosophical stance’” makes for a better critical experience than dismissing yet another unimaginative blockbuster, the frustration I’m feeling is in no way pleasant or satisfying.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Brash, loud, articulate, arrogant and convinced that the world owes him a favour, Dom Hemingway is a great addition to the British crime canon, and Jude Law turns in a splendid performance by incarnating him. The film’s story isn’t much more than a simple ex-con seeks revenge romp, but –from the very first moments- it’s Law’s charisma as Hemingway that carry Dom Hemingway. The direction keeps up with its protagonist’s flights of eloquence and brash actions, resulting in a film that moves fast, hits hard and harkens back to some of the most dynamic British crime films of the past fifteen years. Dom Hemingway doesn’t always succeed (Emilia Clark is a notable low-point for the film, sucking energy out of it even as her character is supposed to be an emotional linchpin for Hemingway’s redemption.) but it gamely tries, and there are plenty of good scenes along the way. Great lines of dialogue don’t always mask the routine nature of the story, but the quotable content can’t be dismissed and writer/director Richard Shepard clearly knows and enjoys what he’s putting together. Still, discussion of the film starts and ends with Jude Law, who clearly relishes the opportunity to let go of his pretty-boy persona and take on a darker role with gusto. Dom Hemingway sparks to life whenever he sinks his teeth in the character, and the result feel invigorating.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) Many recent science-fiction movies are probing the uncomfortable notion of humans being replaced by their creations, but few have the nerve to do so as deviously as Ex Machina does. At first, it seems like a familiar kind of film: A young man is brought in to a remote location to administer a Turing Test to a freshly-developed Artificial Intelligence. What could go wrong? Oh, we know the answer to that question. But Ex Machina goes there through unexpected paths: It stacks the deck against its lovelorn examiners by featuring a robot optimized for sex-appeal, bypassing higher cognitive functions by going straight for base instincts. (Much as I loathe to admit any robosexual fetishes to the world at large, Alicia Vikander is here far more attractive as a visibly artificial character than when she dons a dress and wig to pass as human.) Oscar Isaac turns in another terrific performance as a mad genius combining technical skills with in-your-face arrogance. (The dance sequence alone is instantly memorable) Domhnall Gleeson is just as effective as the audience stand-in, a young man who doesn’t even realise the extent to which he’s being manipulated. But the mastermind here is writer/director Alex Garland, who direct a great first film from his own tight and mean script. There’s a deceptive simplicity to Ex Machina’s surface that hides a lot of philosophical allusions, well-explored ideas and contemporary fears. The result maximizes its secluded location and small cast to present a great science-fiction film, unnerving from beginning to end and very successful in what it manages to achieve. It’s a surprisingly raw treatment for a cerebral subject, and it’s a sure-footed modern classic about a well-worn SF trope.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) Sometimes, you have to let go of narrative and embrace the atmosphere. Despite it being a murder/courtroom drama, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is best appreciated as an atmospheric look at a southern-US Savannah and its unusual characters. It’s digressive, tangential, occasionally supernatural, almost uninterested in its own plot. It lives when it allows its characters to do their own thing, and grows weaker when it gets down to the business of narrative closure. This is a kind of film made for a particular kind of audience (director Clint Eastwood is often best at ease while idling), but even narrative-driven moviegoers may appreciate the unhurried pace at which it unfolds, almost as if it was an invitation to spend some leisurely time visiting Savannah. It also helps feature capable actors: Kevin Spacey is essential as a local mogul accused of murder and whose defence essentially rests on being a community pillar. John Cusack is fine but unchallenging as the audience’s stand-in to the local madness, but The Lady Chabis turns in a great performance by playing herself. If I had more time, I’d check out the book to confirm that this atmosphere is developed even more fully on the page – and I’d re-watch the film in English to get the fullest Southern-accent experience.
(Video on Demand, October 2015) By now, the Bond spy film formula has been spoofed, lampooned and deconstructed so often (even within the Bond series) that Bond-parodies have become a sub-genre in themselves. Spy arrives in this crowded field with a few advantages: Melissa McCarthy may have a divisive comic persona, but she’s absolutely shameless in getting whatever laughs she can, and when you have the production budged to get both Jude Law and Jason Statham as comic foils, it’s already a step up from the usual B-grade effort. So it is that director Paul Feig tries his damnedest to deliver a polished Bond parody, and does score a good number of laughs along the way. His action scenes may not be as good as they could be (although there is a pretty good kitchen fight late in the film) but Spy does have a reasonable veneer of big-budget polish. McCarthy isn’t entirely annoying as a CIA desk agent compelled to become a field operative, but Jason Statham steals the show as an insane and ineffective parody of the kind of action hero he often plays. (Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz also shine in smaller roles.) Otherwise, Spy gets a lot of mileage out of combining puerile humor with its spy subject matter, although the deconstruction/reconstruction mechanism is very familiar by now. It does feel a bit long (something that probably wasn’t helped by seeing the slightly-longer and more digressive “unrated version”) but there is a decent amount of plot to go with the improvised jokes. While Spy doesn’t break as much tradition as it thinks it does, it remains a decent comedy, a fair showcase for McCarthy and a step up for Feig, whose direction seems to improve slightly with every film.
(In French, Video on Demand, October 2015) By now, the conventions of animated kids movies have been codified in an industry standard that only the daring or the foolhardy dare to ignore. You can recognize the average middle-of-the-road animated feature by how well if hews to that formula: imaginative concept involving a bit of fantasy or science-fiction; a resolutely cheerful tone that still allows for a few moments of terror or sadness; a younger protagonist with fantastical friends; high-energy musical number and action sequences; and celebrity voices. Home checks off all of these items twice. It’s about a curiously dim-witted alien invasion that relocates all humans to dense custom suburbs in desert Australia, but it’s mostly about how a young teenager quests to reunite with her mother and understand an alien outcast who becomes her best ally. Cats, broken syntax, the Eiffel tower and another alien race all complicate the plot, but by and large Home is about a girl trying to get back to her mom. Having seen the film in French, I missed out on Jim Parson’s voice acting as the alien, but a few of Rihanna’s songs are featured in their original language. (The broken language jokes are valiantly translated in French –although a few of them have to be back-translated in English to make sense.) It’s an amiable and colorful film, definitely quirky enough to be interesting for adults, while being good-natured and funny enough for the younger set. I’ll note that alien invasions are, by now, such a familiar SF concept that the film can dispense of the invasion sequence in a few minutes and then take place entirely after the event. (The film also gets to play a bit with the idea of alien invaders, all in the service of a non-violent film) The standout sequence of the film is an imaginative action sequence featuring a levitating Eiffel tower being thrown off-balance and scratching a bit of the Parisian landscape. Home does not manage to make enough of its elements to propel itself in the front-row of animated features: it’s a by-the-numbers affair, amusing but unremarkable. That’s not necessarily bad, but there are plenty of other similar features to take up your time if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Comedies about unlikable protagonists are a tricky act to keep up: There’s a limit to the amount of bad behavior that audiences will tolerate before tuning out, and at times it looks as if How to Lose Friends & Alienate People isn’t afraid to test this limit. Reportedly based on the true story of Englishman Toby Young working for American magazines, this film features Simon Pegg playing one of his most unlikable character: a fame-obsessed smarter-than-thou obnoxious shmuck, gifted with the ability to annoy people almost instantly. He’s surprised when the fights he picks come back to haunt him, while the audience rolls their eyes. Much of the film seems aimless, jumping from one set-piece to another without much connective tissue. When How to Lose Friends & Alienate People does remember that it is a romantic comedy, it’s almost too late to care. Similarly, the film goes from a prickly but interesting comedy to a far more conventional romantic vehicle as it goes along, although it is far from being the only such movie to suffer that fate. I suspect that Toby Young’s autobiography is far more interesting, and that the film fell victim to the adaptation-standardization process. There are, fortunately, a few intermittent bright spots here and there, particularly in taking a look at celebrity journalist and the New York magazine scene. Pre-fame Megan Fox shows up as an object of desire, while Kirsten Dunst shows up for an undemanding role as the hero’s true love. Still, there’s a sense of missed opportunities, of pointless unpleasantness here that prevent How to Lose Friends & Alienate People from leaving a better impression. At least Pegg gets to play a real cad for once, and doesn’t screw it up.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2014) The root of the problems with Mockingjay 1 (or Hunger Games 3a) is the business decision, well before the movie had started shooting, that the third volume in adapting Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy was to be split in two separate movies. While there is some justification to the split (the book itself does feel as if it has separate halves), it means that this first half isn’t much more than seeing the lead character mope around despondently for a full hour and a half, with much repetitive material thrown in, over and over again. The pacing isn’t just off: it’s the entire point of the film that’s dulled by this decision. Fortunately, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be better than the material she gets: even a relatively low point like Mockingjay 1 showcases how much the series relies on her performance. It’s not as if the other actors stand there doing nothing (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s pretty good as a manipulator working against his former masters and Natalie Dormer gets a meatier part than usual here), but she remains the foundation on which the series is built. While there’s something encouraging to be said about the film’s production values, its jaundiced view of revolutions and the vulgarized exposition of propaganda techniques, Mockingjay 1 isn’t a whole lot of fun to watch – and if the producers stick to the book, Part 2 won’t be a bag of happy puppies either. But then again, I’m comfortably older than the target audience for this trilogy. At least it’s a bit better than most of its emulators have managed to be so far.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) As much as I have in my mind the notion of a quintessential “Will Ferrell movie”, I’m not sure which Will Ferrell movie that I’d designate as the most representative one. Old School, maybe? Semi-Pro may also fit the bill: It’s nothing more than a dumb sports comedy in which Ferrell gets to grandstand with idiotic set-pieces. As the none-too-bright owner of a minor-league sports team who may get a shot at an NBA franchise, Ferrell’s character gets to play ball, propose dumb audience-pumping schemes and somewhere along the way become (not much of) a better person. The plot itself doesn’t really amount to anything more than an excuse for various comic set-pieces, but the surprise is how many of them don’t stick in mind. The bear wrestling sequence works, granted, but much of the rest of the film just lies inert beyond Ferrell’s usual man-child screaming. Considering Semi Pro as quintessential Ferrell, and then seeing it fail to make an impression, may tell us much about Ferrell’s chosen comic persona.