(In French, Netflix Streaming, June 2016) While largely forgotten today, there’s a lot to like in DreamWorks Animation’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It goes beyond the basic story-of-an-animal level to deliver a somewhat harsh take on western colonization, domestication and the relationships between Natives and Whites. The animation is beautiful, with imperfect but audacious integration of CGI and cell animation. It may be a bit too intense for very young kids (some of the action sequences are relentless, and the degree of cruelty experienced both by the horse protagonist and the native characters can be hard to bear) but it’s perfectly adequate for older kids and interesting to adults. Unusually enough, Spirit doesn’t anthropomorphize its horse characters too much (aside from some inner monologue, the animals don’t speak). It also avoids comic sidekicks and atonal comedy, making it feel somewhat more respectable than many other similar animal-centric movies for kids. Well worth discovering, Spirit is a film that almost measures up to much of what Disney had to offer at the time—and that does mean Brother Bear. Interestingly enough, Ryan Adams sings a translation of his own songs on the French-dubbed version.
(On TV, June 2016) As twenty-five years of commentary has it, Pretty Woman is a feel-good romantic comedy featuring a corporate raider and a Hollywood hooker. Any serious look at the film will highlight the differences between the original, somewhat darker script and the one that ended on screens. But what’s amazing is that it actually works: Largely based on the charm of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts (whose star-making turn here eerily echoes her character), Pretty Woman manages to take a biting premise and transform it into a fairytale in which everyone ends up happy, rich and vindicated. Business dealings are innocuous, drugs are avoided, and uncomfortable issues of sex and power relationship are avoided or nullified by even worse behaviour by the film’s antagonists. (Who’s worse? An attempted rapist or a snooty shopgirl?) On some level, Pretty Woman is a case study of Hollywood techniques for disarming anything that may disturb a large audience. On another, it’s a romantic comedy that packages Pigmalion into a set of tropes fit to be absorbed in a Hollywood subgenre (which it did, the film arguably revitalizing the romantic comedy subgenre for more than a decade). Much of it remains timeless, even though Gere’s character still belongs in the eighties, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot newspapers harkening back to 1989’s Panamanian invasion. Despite the film’s darker edges, Pretty Woman still works well as a crowd pleaser. Stranger things have happened between a daring script and a box-office success.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2016) I expected a bit more from the idea of Bill Murray as a veteran impresario finding new talent in war-torn Afghanistan. The premise seems fit to accommodate a lot of comic potential, not to mention Murray doing what he does best. While Rock the Kasbah does manage to meet a few of those expectations, it seems limited by budget and imagination from delivering a truly satisfying result. The clash of culture between American hedonism and Afghani resilience is never completely explored, Kate Hudson seems wasted as something of a super-prostitute, Murray doesn’t get to disengage his persona’s autopilot and the film’s conclusion manages to weaken the impression left by the film’s better second quarter. Rock the Kasbah could have been a much sharper geo-sardonic comedy, but it seems happier to coast on caricatures and attitude. There are unexplainable script issues (Why get rid of a certain character entirely? Why bring in another main character so late? Why waste strong actors in small roles?) While Bruce Willis once again shows up for the paycheck, at least Leem Lubany is a revelation as an Afghani singer, and Murray does get a few moments of hangdog charm. Fitfully amusing, Rock the Kasbah nonetheless leaves us wanting more. There have been far better comedies exploring the twenty-first century’s geopolitical weirdness for this one to register as particularly interesting.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) At first glance, Spotlight doesn’t look like the most exciting movie of the year. It’s meant to tell the true story of investigative journalists who spend months uncovering a systematic pattern of child abuse by Boston-area priests and attempts to cover up the scandal. That’s not exactly gripping stuff, and the first few minutes of the film don’t promise much more by focusing on a newsroom and Tom McCarthy’s sober (i.e.: not flashy) directing style. But here’s the strange thing: after a while, once the introductions are out of the way, Spotlight starts getting better. Much better. Along with the journalist heroes of the film, we start getting absorbed in the scandal they’re uncovering. As they chase down clues, we start sheering for those characters in all of their quirkiness, drive and doggedness. In its own quiet way, Spotlight has a few devastating sequences, whether it’s interviews with abuse survivors, encounters with the guilty priests, or a disembodied voice suggesting that the magnitude of the scandal is far, far higher than anyone would suspect. It builds and builds, passing over 9/11 and accusations being hurled back at the investigative journalists, until a satisfying revelation of the scandal … followed by a few devastating title cards as epilogue. Spotlight may discuss a church scandal, but it’s not an anti-religion film: Not only does it give voice to practising Catholic characters, it’s far more vital as a celebration of the power of investigative journalism. In its own low-key way, Spotlight is a terrific spiritual successor to All the President’s Men: In a fair world, this film would lead to scores of young people enrolling in journalism school in order to make the fifth estate even stronger, better and more relevant to the nation. Instead, we’re left pondering the devastating impact of the Internet on newspaper closures, the drive away from in-depth journalism and toward click-bait media. Spotlight isn’t flashy, but it does have a fair number of compelling performances, for the always-excellent Mark Ruffalo as an intensely driven journalist, to Michael Keaton further enjoying a later-career renaissance as a sympathetic editor, to Rachel McAdams as a sensitive investigator and Liev Schreiber as a surprisingly enlightened manager. The script is a wonder of efficiency, as it manages to make document analysis compelling and lays down its scandalous revelation like a nightmarish horror movie. Best yet: the film reportedly stays faithful to the facts of the events. Spotlight may or may not be the best movie of the year as exemplified by the Academy Award it got, but it’s in many ways one of the best-controlled of them, one of the most quietly engrossing and one of the most surprising. It certainly qualifies as must-see viewing.
(In theatres, June 2016) Given Finding Nemo’s enduring commercial success, a sequel was inevitable … especially considering Disney-owned Pixar Studio’s increasingly tight relationship with predictable box-office results. Given this, it’s best not to expect too much from its sequel other than impeccably crafted set pieces, gorgeous animation and an approach that doesn’t demean the characters. Since even those basic expectations go well beyond what we’d expect from any other studio, it’s no surprise if Finding Dory manages to be a good film even if it just meets expectations. Picking up a year after the events of the first film, this sequel delves deeper in the backstory of Dory, a process that takes us to the American West Coast, in a marine theme park filled with new characters. The result isn’t one of those Pixar expectation-shattering masterpieces: Finding Dory does everything expected of it and does so with an impeccable degree of polish. Some of the new characters are fun (Grouchy octopus Hank is the intended highlight), and the set-pieces can be impressive: the ending sequence, climaxing in “What a Wonderful World”, has a particular surreal kick to it. The quality of the animation is astonishing and it hits its intended emotional targets. All in all, it’s hard to find anything bad to say about Finding Dory: Kids will love it, adults will like it and the box-office results will help finance more conceptually ambitious Pixar movies. What’s not to like?
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) Significantly darker and grimmer than its 1989 predecessor, Batman Returns is at once more frustrating than Batman while being better in some regards. Director Tim Burton is back and obviously has more confidence in his ability to use the character’s mythology to serve his own pet obsessions. Adding two villains works well, although Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman is far more interesting than Danny DeVito’s Penguin. While Batman had a straightforward hero-versus-villain structure, this sequel mixes the cards a bit with additional villains and allies, gets going into heavier themes of abandonment and social validation (Daniel Waters wrote the script!), and seems far more comfortable in its cinematography than the previous film. Alas, some moments don’t work as well: At least twice (the nose bite, the death of the beauty queen, arguably the sad conclusion), the film gets significantly too dark for its own good and wastes some of the viewer’s best intentions. Some rough CGI work is fascinating, but decisively date the film. Still, the set design is arresting, the film moves briskly from one plot point to another, offering a few high points (such as the Masquerade Ball) and smaller rewards from beginning to end. Christopher Walken has a great villainous role, while Michael Keaton remains better than more people remember at Batman/Bruce Wayne. In context, it would take another twelve years (and a superhero wave of movies kicked off by 2000’s X-Men) until Batman got any better on the big screen. Hey, I remember seeing Batman Returns in theatres with friends, back when I actually started going to the movies (which, given that the nearest theatre was twenty kilometres away, was a significant endeavour for a small-town teenager). I can still echo the TV/radio ads: “The Bat, the Cat, The Penguin!”
(Netflix Streaming, June 2016) This is probably the third movie review that I preface with “Poor Vin Diesel”, but here we go again: Poor Vin Diesel. He’s a charismatic actor, with more range than people are willing to concede. Massive crowd pleaser with the Fast and Furious series, but whenever he’s tried to do something else, success has eluded him. His insistence at reviving the Riddick series is admirable but futile given the results. The Last Witch Hunter, influenced by his own enthusiasm for role-playing campaigns, is obviously made to be the first in a franchise … but whatever strengths it has can’t quite manage to make it stand out at a time when urban fantasies can be bought by the dozen from the DVD bargain bin. It does start out promisingly, though: Featuring an immortal victim of witch magic backed by the Catholic Church and dabbling in modern magic, The Last Witch Hunter does have a spark of originality and interest to it. New York becomes (again, but still) an arena for good-versus-evil, and some of the individual world-building elements have some charm. But as fantasy watchers have come to expect, original world building usually takes a back seat to dull plot mechanics as the movie advances, and this film is no exception: By the time a solidly average third act rolls by, we’ve forgotten nearly anything that was good and unusual about the first thirty minutes of the film. Vin Diesel is actually quite good in the lead role, with Rose Leslie being fine as the heroine and Elijah Woods as well as Michael Caine giving decent supporting performances. Still, Diesel looking tough and grim isn’t quite enough to rescue The Last Witch Hunter from mediocrity, and so it fades in the noise of so many urban fantasy movies all following the same narrative pattern. See it if you like Diesel (and who doesn’t?) but otherwise, this is as far from an essential film as it’s possible to be.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Comedy is intensely subjective, and it’s hard to find a better example of this than Dirty Grandpa, which had me chuckling and smiling throughout despite earning atrocious reviews from just about any serious movie critic. How to explain it? I can’t. I can only report that Dirty Grandpa manages to create, fairly early on, an atmosphere in which nearly every scabrous or raunchy gag gets a reaction. Drugs at a funeral, and a sexually obsessed retiree? From that moment on, it just gets dumber and funnier. From afar, it’s easy to claim this vulgar and meaningless film as a nadir for Robert de Niro, but if you’re under the film’s charm, his performance as a perverted old man looking for the sexual experience he denied himself until his wife’s death is nothing short of a go-for-broke exercise in deliberate offensiveness. (More intriguingly, it plays with some deeply held social convictions of how a senior should act like, giving Dirty Grandpa at least a veneer of honest transgression.) Alongside such a ferocious committal to comedy, co-star Zak Efron merely has to stay put and react appropriately. Great supporting performances by Aubrey Plaza (playing a far more active kind of comedy than she usually does) as a grandpa-chaser and Jason Mantzoukas as an unrepentant drug dealer both add a lot to the film. I’m never going to seriously argue that Dirty Grandpa is a good movie—it’s by-the-number comedy, made more daring by pushing the boundaries of vulgarity and throwing old-person jokes in the mix for added offensiveness. There are some lengthy lulls, and the secret to appreciating de Niro’s performance is forgetting his Academy Awards entirely. But here’s the terrible truth: the film made me laugh, and it made me laugh a fair amount more than many of the most respected films of the past year or so. I half-suspect that I’ll see Dirty Grandpa again in the future and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this review. In the meantime, though, I just have to think about de Niro’s gleefully crude character to get a quick smile.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) This may sound ungrateful, but I’d expect a disaster movie about climbing the Earth’s tallest mountain to be a bit more … impressive. It’s not as if Everest is entirely missing in thrills: After reading a lot about Himalayan mountain-climbing, it’s fascinating to see a big-budget production head over to Nepal (even if only for a small portion of the shoot) and show us how it’s done. The capable group of actors assembled for the film is impressive, starting with the ever-impressive Jason Clarke and Jake Gyllenhaal as duelling climbers/entrepreneurs. Part of the film’s middle-of-the-road impression may be due to its insistence on sticking to a true story, the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest disaster spectacularly chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Interestingly enough, Everest is not based on Into Thin Air, while Krakauer shows up as a non-heroic character. There’s a limit to the amount of drama (or, perhaps more accurately, audience-friendly dramatic structure) that can be generated from a film intent on sticking to facts, and Everest finds itself limited to the real story. Direction-wise, Baltasar Kormákur has fun with some set pieces, even though the story itself treads familiar ground. What’s often missing, though, is a sense of scale: For such a big mountain, Everest is too often glimpsed from too close and the film rarely delivers on the awe of the mountain-climbing experience. Regrettably, Everest’s strengths only highlight its limits: While it’s a decent travelogue, it should have been a more absorbing experience. I may, however, revisit this film in a few years to see if I’m being too picky.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I’ve reached my limit on teenage dystopias a year ago, so it’s not a surprise if I find Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials to be both useless and dull. The moronic world building of the first film gallops further afar in nonsense here, with our teenage protagonists blindly flaying between murky opposing forces. They wander through the desert, the mountains and discover groups that seem to exist without any food or water sources but hey—as long as the chases-and-thrills structure is followed, nobody really cares. Despite the action sequences, though, The Scorch Trials is surprisingly dull: the thrills are derivative, most of the plot points mean nothing, the cast of characters is largely undistinguishable (and overwhelmingly male, especially in the first half of the film) and there’s a sense that the film is just wasting time before the third-movie conclusion. There is, to be fair, a few interesting post-apocalyptic visuals, especially when the group wanders in broken cities. It’s also sort-of-interesting to see a few Game of Thrones players pop up in minor roles, with Aidan Gillen nearly playing the same character in the same way. But not much of it amounts to any particular interest for The Scorch Trials. A quick Wikipedia check suggests that the plot of the book has been substantially altered, but given the inanity of the source material, it’s hard to count this as a failure of adaptation. Much like everyone else, I will reluctantly end up seeing the third movie when it comes out—but seeing the falling box-office results of the competing teenage dystopia series, it sure looks as if I’m not the only one who’s ready to put that subgenre out of its dreary misery.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) There’s no denying that Ghost has ascended to the film pantheon as a romantic fantasy film (cue the pottery sequence!) but a fresh viewing shows that the film is a bit more than that: Beyond the romance, it’s got strong comic moments, a decent amount of imaginative flair and quite a few thrills. Anchored by Patrick Swayze’s fair performance and bolstered by a surprisingly funny and good-looking Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost is more interesting when it deals with the mechanics and complications of a ghost trying to make contact with the living. Suspense elements are woven (not always seamlessly) with comic sequences, giving the film a multifaceted appeal that doesn’t quite degenerate into abrupt tonal shifts. Demi Moore is a bit generic and baby-faced Tony Goldwyn is more fascinating than anything else considering how well he has aged in Scandal. Still, the film holds up relatively well beyond the pottery sequence, hitting marks on a wide spectrum of targets. It’s enough to make anyone wonder if today’s blockbusters have grown a bit too selective in their intentions for fear of tonal incongruity. Ghost, at least, deftly goes from romance to comedy to horror to thrills, and the result still speaks for itself.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Thelma & Louise twenty-five years after its release, I expected the experience to be less … upsetting than it was. After all; Thelma & Louise is recognized as a feminist classic, I’m pro-feminism; it’s a quarter-century later, social attitudes have changed … why should this be anything but a safe period piece? But it’s not. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis star as two women out for a weekend away from their spouses, but find themselves driven to a crime spree through a set of circumstances—and despicable men. Thelma & Louise remains an infuriating film even today largely due to the realization that it’s still an exceptional film. Films with two strong female leads are still rare, and film to be written from such an explicitly female perspective are even rarer—especially in Hollywood. Ridley Scott may have directed the film with his typical visual flair, but most of its impact squarely depends on a script written by Callie Khouri, channelling female frustrations and anxieties in reluctant wish fulfillment. Pretty much all the male characters are out to do harm to our leads: It’s not just Christopher McDonald’s unrepentant abusive husband or Brad Pitt’s captivating first turn as an opportunistic thief: It’s also Harvey Keitel as an investigator, sympathetic to our protagonist but tasked to enforce the dominant male narrative that has designated the protagonists as dangerous criminals. Thelma & Louise still pushes buttons a quarter-century later, and forces audiences to realize how little progress has been made along the way. Perhaps worse is the realization that the kind of film that is Thelma & Louise, muscular mid-budget standalone thrillers with some social relevance, have been almost evacuated from the Hollywood scene, replaced by fantasy narratives designed to sell latter instalments. I’m upset all right, and I can’t think of higher praise for the film.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Nobody asked for this sequel (Upon learning that it was coming, I thought, “they made a sequel to the wrong white-house-in-peril movie!”) but now that London has Fallen exists, what can we learn from the experience? Perhaps, surprisingly, that it actually improves upon the admittedly dismal first film in the series: Without Antoine Fuqua at the helm, London Has Fallen tones down the excessive violence, swearing and mean-spiritedness. The result still isn’t particularly inspiring (this is, after all, a film where—ethnic slurs aside—Americans are criticized for indiscriminate drone-bombing, to which they triumphantly respond with even more drone-bombing) but it’s potent in the way generic action thrillers can be enjoyable as long as you don’t ask too many questions about American hegemony. There isn’t a whole lot of plot to London has Fallen—just Gerard Butler killing terrorists with jingoistic bon mots, Aaron Eckhart looking presidential and stock footage of London with tons of smoke. The film occasionally shows signs of life—most notably during a G7 assassination festival earlier on, and a mock single-take assault on a building later on. Most of the time, though, it seems happy to go through the motions of an eighties action film with implausibly well-organized foes, a bulletproof hero and plenty of unanswered questions. As dumb and borderline unpalatable as it may be, though, London Has Fallen does manage to stay on this side of the unacceptability line, which is more than the first film did. I’m not at all convinced that a third entry in the series is needed, but at least it ends on a higher note than if the first film had been allowed to disappear without a follow-up.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves twenty-five years after release (almost to the day) is a reminder about the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster between the eighties and nineties. You can see in Robin Hood the elements that would make up the blockbuster tropes of the nineties, but you can also see the remnants of eighties-style filmmaking stiffness: The slightly-too-slow pacing, the quirks that don’t necessarily reinforce the film’s strengths, the unconscious irritation (such as the attempted-rape elements of the conclusion) the stiff studio staging, and so on. Director Kevin Reynolds doesn’t do a bad job with what he’s given, but it’s a film of its time. It’s good, but it’s not necessarily polished to a shine like latter blockbusters would be. It doesn’t help that Kevin Costner is off as Robin Hood: his stoic persona can’t accommodate the more light-hearted requirements of the role. On the other hand, Alan Rickman is fantastic as the all-out villainous antagonist, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio looks great at Maid Marian, and Morgan Freeman gets a pretty good role as an Islamic Moor stuck in the madness. Watching this film today, after the pop-culture clichés and most notably the 1993 full-length Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is strangeness multiplied. But then again I was in high school when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out—much of the pop culture of the time has stuck in my head to a degree that may not be as extreme for other viewers.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) It’s not a good sign when a movie loses all credibility in its first five minutes. In The Visit, we’re asked to believe that a mother would simply ship off her teenage kids to her long-estranged parents for a week, while she gallivants to a cruise holiday. Result: Disbelief snapped, never to return. After that, the annoying mockumentary gimmick seems inconsequential. The good news, I suppose, are that the film is a bit better than writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s last few atrocities—but not by much, and most of the “better” should be read as “doesn’t repeatedly try to alienate its audience”. There are still plenty of reasons to dislike the film: the tone is all over the place and not in a “here’s comic relief” kind of way. The various events that happen during the film are the kind of stuff that occurs in movies rather than any attempt at real-life, clashing with the hand-held aesthetics of the film. The Visit, perhaps worst of all, is dull stuff, built upon a weak foundation and never achieved in the way it is presented on-screen. If I dig a bit into the film, I can see how the on-screen aesthetics of amateur filmmakers are meant to act as Shyamalan’s commentary on filmmaking, but I just don’t have the patience for that: As far as I’m concerned, Shyamalan is still in the doghouse … and he can stay there for a while.