Monthly Archives: November 2015

Arlington Road (1999)

(In French, on Cable TV, November 2015)  Some movies are made before their time, and I really wonder if Arlington Road would have been a more unnerving film had it been released three (or more) years later.  There is, of course, a definite mid-nineties vibe to the proceedings, drawing from the Oklahoma City bombing to Ruby Ridge and Waco in setting up an anti-government domestic terrorism rationale: Three years later, the American national paranoia would be obsessed about foreign-driven terrorism.  Adding foreign involvement to Arlington Road would have muddled an already preposterous plot that draws equally upon unlikely coincidences, comically evil plans, superhuman levels of deception by the antagonist and plans that would have a near-impossible chance to succeed if this wasn’t a movie.  There’s emotional manipulation nearly everywhere, and at times it’s hard to believe that anyone in the cast, even Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, can keep a straight face pushing the story forward.  On the other hand, well-executed ludicrousness has a believability of its own, and so Arlington Road has the decency to remain interesting on a pure “OK, what will happen next?” level, egging us on to the next unlikely plot point.  I’m not sure that it helps that the film is so determined to get its downbeat ending: you can forgive a lot more silliness if it’s all neatly wrapped with a happy bow.  It makes for a more-memorable-than-average thriller, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better one.

Trainwreck (2015)

(Video on Demand, November 2015) Much has been said about how Trainwreck is director Judd Apatow’s first film for which he did not write the screenplay; the prevailing hope being that writer/star Amy Schumer’s script would avoid a number of Apatow’s most problematic tics, in particular his tendency to meander and deliver bloated films with largely-unnecessary third acts.  Now that the film is here, though, critics have a good proof that all scripts are filtered through their director’s quirks, and so Trainwreck doesn’t exactly improve a whole lot on the indulgent ramblings, tangential subplots, improvised dialogues and low stakes so characteristics of other Apatow films.  Do note that his strengths also carry through: it’s a convincingly naturalistic exploration of modern relationships, with some good set-pieces, persona-stretching performances, frank discussions and down-to-earth situations.  Trainwreck should appeal, as labeled, to fans of Apatow’s previous films or Schumer’s increasingly familiar comic persona.  Plot-wise, there isn’t much to see here: It’s a fairly standard romantic comedy formula, used as a foundation on which to play character-driven comic moments.  As the philandering, weed-using, underachieving lead, Schumer navigates a tricky line as a somewhat unlikable protagonist who gets to grow a bit during the course of the film.  Far more likable are some personalities in bit-parts: John Cena is unexpectedly hilarious in a small but merciless role, while Lebron James (of all people) gets more than his share of laughs playing himself.  Still, much of the film is pretty much everything you’ve come to expect from the Apatow laugh factory: Those who aren’t fans (or worse; those who aren’t fans and are not in sports), may not find themselves as entertained by Trainwreck as those who are.

In Her Shoes (2005)

(On TV, November 2015)  One of the advantages of going back in time and catching moderately-popular movies from a decade ago is that they can help fills a few gaps along the way.  If I had seen In Her Shoes back in 2005, then Cameron Diaz’s similar turn in 2011’s Bad Teacher may not have been so surprising.  It also helps answer the question “What has Curtis Hanson done since L.A. Confidential?” and “Does Toni Colette look better with or without glasses?” (Answer: “With”, but then again I’m always answering that.)  Otherwise, the most noteworthy thing about In Her Shoes is getting further proof that a romantic melodrama adapted from a book often feels far less formulaic than similar original screenplays.  There’s an added depth and complexity to the story that comes straight from the novel, along with a number of literary devices that for some reason seem more common in adapted screenplays.  (Reading a synopsis of the novel does help in finding out that the screenplay isn’t above some compression and simplification, but that’s how these things go.)  Balancing heartfelt sentiment about long-lost family relationship with sibling rivalry and more straightforward romantic subplots, In Her Shoes doesn’t seem like much, but it lands its emotional beat honestly, takes an expansive left turn past its first act and features a few good performances by Diaz, Colette and acting-her-age Shirley MacLaine.  Hanson’s direction gets the point across effectively, and if the film does feel a bit too long at times, it definitely ends well enough.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2015)  I’m aware that Wet Hot American Summer now has a cult-favorite reputation, but watching the film isn’t as amazing an experience as I’d been led to believe.  Executed on a shoestring budget in reportedly terrible shooting conditions (as in; cold and rainy for weeks, not helping a film supposed to take place during a single sunny summer day), Wet Hot American Summer does have a number of very funny moments, especially when the film temporarily lets go of character-driven comedy and fully indulges into its most absurdist whims.  Alas, those better moments tend to be sporadic and feel out of place among the more restrained humor of the rest of the film: There’s an unevenness to the quality of the jokes than probably shows better than anything else the relative lack of experience of the filmmakers.  (David Wain would later write and direct the somewhat more controlled They Came Together)  This being said, much of the appeal of at least a first viewing of Wet Hot American Summer comes from seeing a bunch of well-known actors make appearances here, often in very early roles: Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd weren’t as well-known in 2001 than today, plus we get great performances by Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce.  Otherwise, the film’s winning charm compensates for the hit-and-miss humor, although not by much: As the production values limits become more obvious, it’s easy to imagine what the creators could have done with more.  (And, in fact, you can see that in the 2015 four-hour Netflix mini-series that improbably not only manages to get nearly everyone back, but sets itself a few weeks before the film.  )  For more information on the film and the remarkable experience its cast and crew had in going to camp for a few weeks, have a look at Hurricane of Fun also available on Netflix… but be warned that it’s all 2001 grainy footage with very little connective material.

Annie (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2015) Will Gluck earned a spot on my list of interesting directors after Easy A and a good chunk of Friends with Benefits: He seems at ease with fast-paced films about young characters but doesn’t necessarily talk down to his audience.  Annie isn’t in the same league as Easy A, but it’s a competent kid’s film with an appealing heroine a good narrative rhythm.  Given that much of it is a straight-up musical, that’s no small achievement.  The story, now decades old, should be familiar: An orphan is temporarily adopted by a billionaire, who then discovers the true meaning of affection and—aw, who cares: We’re here for “It’s the hard-knock life” and “Tomorrow”.  Quvenzhané Wallis turns in a very good performance as the titular Annie –quietening those who may have thought that her breakthrough role in Beasts of the Southern Wild was a feral one-shot fluke, she sings, dances and makes for a perfectly likable protagonist.  Jamie Foxx also does well as a new-economy Daddy Warbucks (he makes cell phones), while Cameron Diaz adds another unsubtle bad-girl role to her repertoire.  The music numbers often fizz and pop (although some of them aren’t as energetic, and the last one can be distracting as background detail-spotters can watch the shadows on the fence-posts to figure out how long it took to shoot.), while the comedy bubbles up naturally.  Some of the dramatic beats are over-played, but there’s some nice cinematography at play here, especially in presenting a glorious one-percenter fantasy view of New York.  I’m not as wedded to previous versions of Annie as some may be, and I have a surprisingly high tolerance for movie characters bursting in song and dance, so your mileage will probably vary. 

Le Coq de St-Victor [The Rooster of St-Victor] aka Rooster Doodle-doo (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2015)  A crucial aspect of resisting American cultural hegemony is the unwritten rule to be a bit kinder to our home-grown films, to be a bit more forgiving, to be a bit less heavy on the mockery.  It’s in that spirit that I recognize Le Coq de St-Victor, a computer-animated film set in a comfortably kiddified vision of long-ago rural Quebec, focusing on a village in which a zealous rooster wakes everyone up and spurs the village to admirable productivity.  When the citizen rebel and the rooster is sent away, productivity falls and economic ruin follows.  Frankly, I’m not sure if it’s worthwhile to map reactionary cultural values (“Sloth leads to sin!  Salvation can only be attained by getting up early and working hard!”) onto a film definitely made for kids, but as an adult it’s hard to see the film’s strange church-free version of a small Quebec village without trying to understand which points the script is trying to make.  The relative marginalization of female characters is a missed opportunity, and the film simply feels quite a bit duller, longer and blunter than it could have been.  The visual style of Le Coq de St-Victor is a bizarre and not entirely successful blend of what looks like 3D animation with hand-drawn 2D elements –I’m guessing that it’s a more cost-efficient way to complete a project, but the visual feel is markedly more primitive than contemporary animated films.  It does have a bit of charm and the cute-factor isn’t to be dismissed, as is a surprisingly detailed explanation of the integrated economy of the village.  (I also regret being forced to see it in its dubbed English version, as I suspect that the original French soundtrack had quite a bit more authenticity to it.)  Still, there remains a sense that Le Coq de St-Victor doesn’t manage to be as good as it could have been, even considering the limited budget and means at its disposal.  The script could have been improved, and the rest would have followed.  I’m not entirely looking forward to seeing this film on almost-continuous loop for the next few years, as it’s likely to remain one of the few examples of made-in-Canada animated films to meet Can-Con requirements for TV channels.

Remember the Titans (2000)

(On TV, November 2015)  Some movies feel as if they were executed almost entirely on autopilot, making use of familiar elements to make entirely unobjectionable moral points in ways that are undistinguishable from countless other similar movies.  So it is that I hadn’t seen Remember the Titans, but it felt as if I already had: Using football as a way to discuss racial integration, it’s a film that plays exactly like many other such movies, with underdog victories, enemies making nice, a community forgetting their racial divide through sportsmanship and the entire laundry list of such wishful thinking.  It’s not necessarily bad (with Denzel Washington starring, there’s at least one good performance worth watching), but it’s intensely familiar.  It’s also, to be savagely truthful, the kind of movies so specific to the American Midwest experience (football and racism!) that it becomes an anthropological artifact to non-American viewers: Whatever strings the films pull aren’t as effective for foreign viewers and the result feels intensely mechanical as a result.  Even Washington plays pretty much the same role as he ever has.  Despite its subject matter, Remember the Titans is consciously meant to be nice and uncontroversial: a family movie after which everyone can feel better about their non-obvious racism.  It plays without big surprises, but also crucially without any ambiguity than a look at the historical facts would reveal.  Well-done but familiar, It’s a hard film to dislike but an easy one to dismiss. 

Just Like Heaven (2005)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2015)  To be honest, I didn’t expect much from Just Like Heaven, which first presents itself as a basic supernatural romantic comedy: A man moves into an apartment vacated under mysterious circumstances, and soon discovers that he’s sharing space with the ghost of a feisty woman who doesn’t realize she’s dead.  Various hijinks follow, all the way to an improbable happy ending.  Standard stuff, except for a better-than-average execution and some good comic moments.  Mark Ruffalo and Reese Witherspoon are both very good the lead roles, Mark Waters directs everything with rhythm and the basic concept of a ghost trying to connect with a real live human are good for some unexpected pieces of physical comedy.  It does inevitably dip into drama later on, but no worries: the ending is as happy as anything you’d expect.  Don’t focus on the finer points of the plotting or the obvious emotional manipulation and you’ll be just fine: San Francisco plays itself well, the side-characters are fun, and the film hooks you up without too much trouble.  I started Just Like Heaven as background watching while I was doing something else, and ended up stopping my work to watch the film more often than I’d thought.  That doesn’t make it a great movie… but it does make it quite a bit better than I expected.

Afternoon Delight (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’m not sure how or why Kathryn Hahn ended up associated with raunchy comedy in my mind (although watching her roles as borderline-deviant in Bad Words and This is Where I Leave You probably explains it), but it may have led to wrong assumptions in watching Afternoon Delight.  Billed as a low-key comedy in which a frustrated suburban mom changes her life after befriending a stripper, Afternoon Delight ends up being a somewhat miserable drama in which a well-off mother uses then discards a sex worker to rekindle her marriage.  This sounds worse than it is, but the truth is that there’s a surprisingly reprehensible way to read Afternoon Delight that may not be what writer/director Jill Soloway intended.  In-between the naturalistic staging, unspectacular camera work, tonal issues and decidedly un-triumphant ending in which a character gets sidelined after serving her purpose, Afternoon Delight is the kind of independent low-budget drama that seduces with an interesting premise and unsettles with an intensely uncomfortable third act. (That princess-trinket scene… heart-breaking.)  Hahn does quite a bit better as a complex lead character than in her more usual scene-stealing comic roles, while Juno Temple is also quite good as the young woman who upsets the protagonist’s world – both of them, though, aren’t well-served by the end stretch of the film, which seems happy throwing away an entire character just to make its lead couple happy.  Maybe that’s the point; maybe that’s an accident –all I know is that by the end of Afternoon Delight, I didn’t want anything to do with anyone in the film.

Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2015, 480 pages, C$29.00 hc, ISBN 978-0316098106

(This review contains spoilers, because spoilers are the point of this review)

As I write this, Science Fiction fandom is experiencing another one of its crises that come to redefine it. Reactionary forces are trying to take over the genre’s top award, spinning furious theories of vote rigging and pernicious influence from social justice whatevers. The issue claims to be about ethics in SF journalism whether Science Fiction’s overall aesthetics have been moved too far away from its core audience and if it was about that topic then we’d have a serious argument. (I may be progressive in my politics, but I’m quite old-fashioned in the kind of SF I like.)  As it turns out, however, the current debate about ethics in SF awards nominations is an acute symptom of a larger neo-reactionary movement. Last year it was videogames; this year is about SF awards; next year will almost certainly be a metastasizing of the tendency into American national politics given the presidential election.

In this context, the vigorous debate surrounding Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora is almost predictable given the nature of what Robinson tries to do with his novel: question some of the core assumptions of classical Science Fiction. For SF has always taken at face value that humanity is meant to conquer the universe. Thousands of years in the future, humanity will, of course, have colonized other star systems, an expansion that can only be stopped by the heat death of the universe—and we’ll work on that at some point.

For a while, Robinson seems to follow into familiar paths. The story begins aboard a generation ship sent to colonize a nearby star. It’s a clever ship, with dozens of ecosystems contained in large separate compartments. Our hero is a young girl who defies social more to travel across the entire ship, trying to follow in the footsteps of her formidable mother. For a while, all the way up to the descent on the new planet, Aurora seems almost depressingly familiar—an old-hat SF story told using the latest technological vocabulary.

But then Something Happens. Something that doesn’t usually happens in SF stories. People fall sick. The planet rejects humanity. Survivors are asked to contemplate the unthinkable: Head back home.

Some do. Some don’t. Our heroine is among those who choose to come back, knowing that she probably won’t live to the arrival back to Earth. And as the story follows her, we never hear again about those who chose to try again on the new planet.

Aurora gets weirder after that. The return home is simplified by the convenient development of cryogenic technology that can be used by the returning colonists. Much of the book’s second half is a thrilling game of celestial pinball in which Robinson shows, calculations included, how to slow down from a trip at a significant fraction of light speed. Then the novel’s final section deals with the non-enthusiastic reception that the failed colonists get upon returning to their so-called “home”. Ultimately, our protagonist finds some measure of self-peace by getting closer to nature, earth and the everlasting ocean.

Some of this is very familiar to Robinson fans. The almost existentialist need to commune with nature has been an integral part of Robinson’s fiction since, well, forever (see elements of his Three California Trilogy, especially the utopian Pacific’s Edge; see elements of his Mars trilogy, seeking to make Mars more Earth-like; see his Climate change trilogy, stating how unwise it is to disturb the natural equilibrium; see the mysterious illness that affects those who don’t take sabbaticals on Earth in 2312, which is semi-linked to Aurora). His willingness to question the assumptions of SF have never been too far from his fiction, even when he writes from within the genre’s core.

At the same time, it almost feels audacious to star poking at one of the core tenets of SF. What if, indeed, stock humans were simply unsuitable to space colonization? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to be so closely part of Earth’s ecosystem to being unable to function anywhere else? For a genre that prides itself on asking the tough questions, SF needs a good shake once in a while. And if this upsets some of the reactionary readers, well … what are you doing reading the stuff?

This isn’t to say that I’m completely satisfied with Aurora. It wouldn’t be a Robinson SF novel without at least one or two big blunders, and even casually reading the book raised a few questions that were never answered. There’s the curious survival of a guy stuck in a separate compartment that mystifies me as the rest of the group starves in a much larger compartment. I’m not convinced that biomes with wilderness are sustainable in a starship. I hope that the Oberth Maneuver calculations in the second half of the book are exact, but I remain skeptical. Elsewhere on the web, this overview of Aurora’s science problems is interesting.

But technical details aside, I really do admire Robinson for seriously tacking one of the sacred cows of Science Fiction, and doing it in a way that’s not dismissive. (It would have been easy to make a similar point in a short story, but an entire novel—that takes dedication.)  I quite enjoyed the usual games that Robinson plays with the prose—in this case, blending the story with the ship’s internal narrative. Aurora is quite a book, frustrating and exhilarating and mind-expanding at once. Opponents take note: It is not the description of a certain future, nor an attack on your identity as a SF reader … it is a thought experiment taken far along, and a supplemental opinion to integrate in your view of the world. There’s no need to get angry about it. If I was still in the habit of making Hugo nominations, I’d put it on my ballot.

Saw IV (2007)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) I had previously seen bits and pieces of Saw IV, but watching it from beginning to end so soon after seeing Saw III only highlighted what I’d gathered from my cursory first look, albeit with a stronger caveat.  First, the good: The integration of Saw III and IV is clever, misleading viewers just well enough to be interesting.  The grimy industrial atmosphere of the series is finely upheld (if that’s your kind of thing –I’ve found that a little of it is enough to last me a long time) and so are the usual ticks and tricks: the music that blares the moment something is happening, the camera that goes wild as if to mask the gaping logical gaps of the story… and so on.  As I’ve said: One Saw film per year or two is enough to satisfy: more than that, and the holes start to show.  It doesn’t help that this fourth volume is less satisfying than the previous ones: The mean-spiritedness of the series (via its elaborate traps, casual disregard for human dignity and flashy gore) is far less tempered by any kind of redemption.  This is partially addressed in the story (original villain Jigsaw’s legacy is being repurposed by other, more nihilistic imitators) but let’s not fool ourselves: At the fourth volume, this is also the series creators reacting to what the series fans are asking for: sadistic blood-soaked deaths, meat puppets being torn apart and rusty warehouse decadence.  As for me, it feels as if I had seen enough by the previous installments: This one seems more than redundant.

Coach Carter (2005)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) As much as I don’t respond eagerly to sports movies, and as much as I don’t feel immediately compelled by tales of black teenagers working themselves out of the ghetto, I have to admit that the savvy blend of sport underdog drama and troubled-youth theatrics in Coach Carter seems made for success.  As a bonus, Samuel L. Jackson gets one of his most Samuel L. Jackson-esque role here as the titular coach, using harsh methods to teach disaffected teenagers some work ethics and life skills.  Mechanically put together and almost entirely unburdened by surprises, Coach Carter does offer a few highlights even if it takes almost forever in the film for Carter to become an actual protagonist with obstacles to overcome.  Much of the sub-plots surrounding the core story are familiar and make the film longer than it should be, although Ashanti turns in a fine performance and Channing Tatum can be seen in an early role.  Still, it’s Jackson who elevates the material, providing a credible figurehead through which the tough-love message of the film can echo.  While kids may like the film because of the unlikely victories, parents will love the sugar-coated message about the value of work and discipline.  As with most other sports movies, this is an aspiration story of moral values played on a field –designed for maximum appeal. 

Wolf Creek (2005)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) I should just stop trying to watch psycho-killer horror movies.  They annoy me more than anything else, and I loathe them so much that I can’t even appreciate the so-called strengths of the genre.  Australian escapee Wolf Creek, for instance, may not be a terrible film as far as psycho-killer horror movies are concerned: it features a truly detestable antagonist, stark realistic cinematography, harrowing sequences and stripped-down plotting.  Unfortunately, that’s all in service of things I don’t want to see.  I don’t want to see two women horribly pursued and killed (while the male victim escapes)   I’m not interested in endless shots of the Australian desert while fifteen minutes’ worth of plot is stretched over more than an hour.  I’ve had my fill of psycho-killers murdering young people for the thrill of it.  I’m even less looking forward to yet another by-the-number bloodbath with no clear theme, meaning or shred of humanity.  The PG-rating of these reviews forces me to reach for the much-diluted “Darn this movie, darn it all to hell” in labelling Wolf Creek, but be assured that I think much worse of it.  If nothing else, it cuts short this review, so that I can stop thinking about the film.

Nightcrawler (2014)

(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) The concept of the anti-hero is retooled with vigour in Nightcrawler, thanks to a terrific collaboration between writer/director Dan Gilroy and another exceptional performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Taking place in modern Los Angeles (now illuminated at night by bright-white LED streetlamps) where competing news stations are literally out for blood, Nightcrawler is first and foremost the character study of a modern sociopath, one whose ambition is fueled by personal-growth Internet sites, a complete lack of morals and a world that gleefully applauds the result of his efforts.  Gyllenhaal is phenomenal in the lead hustler role, portraying a deeply wrong character with almost-complete detachment: the film’s best scene is a “simple” dinner date in which a human relationships is dissected to its most self-interested axioms.  Otherwise, much of the film is spent in the streets of Los Angeles at night, chasing accidents and selling video footage to the highest bidder.  It’s a nightmarish but well-executed film, Gilroy showing talent at his first directorial effort –and showcasing his wife Renee Russo in one of the best roles she’s had in years.  There’s quite a bit of depth in the way Nightcrawler also engages with issues of degenerate capitalism, social voyeurism and media fearmongering.  It’s quite a film, but also quite an experience in how it refuses to see things from outside its lead character’s perspective.  Don’t be surprised if you want to shower after watching it.

My Name is Bruce (2007)

(On Cable TV, November 2015) Is it still a dumb B-movie if it knows and celebrates that it’s a dumb B-movie?  My Name is Bruce offers an easy answer to that question (“YES!”) but doesn’t necessarily dismiss the follow-up question: Are we wasting our lives watching dumb B-movies?  Much of the answer that that question, in the case of this film, will hinge on whether you like Bruce Campbell in his full self-aware auto-referential glory.  Here, a Bruce Campbell caricature (obviously played by Bruce Campbell, who also directs and co-produces) is asked for help by a small town terrified of a monster it unleashed.  But Campbell-the-character is an incorrigible lecherous coward who’s going to have to grow up quickly if he’s to defeat the menace and escape with his life.  The formula here couldn’t be more familiar, and even the film’s winking self-awareness doesn’t exactly make it anything but a low-budget dumb B-movie.  Campbell does have quite a bit of self-deprecating charm, but it may not be sufficient to convince those in the audience who have previously come to the conclusion that shlock is shlock, no matter how often it acknowledges that it’s shlock.  (If it didn’t want to be shlock, then it should feel free to be something else.)  My Name is Bruce can be amusing, but it can also be exasperating in the way it recycles most of the clichés in the book, wallows in low-budget production techniques and can’t be bothered to go beyond the most obvious jokes.  There’s clearly a financial calculation here (as is; how cheaply can the movie be made and still bring in a profit or intangible fan love for Campbell?) that doesn’t help My Name is Bruce distinguish itself from the very type of movie it’s trying to skewer.  Campbell is, bluntly speaking, much better than this.  But he has accurately figured out that this is his bread-and-butter, and that fans of those movies are the ones most likely to flock to a movie directed by Campbell.  It’s perilously close to a vanity project, but at least Campbell fans will get exactly what they say they want from him.