(On Cable TV, July 2017) The first Ouija movie came and went so fast that I never bothered to see it, not encouraged by the terrible reviews it got along the way. So when Ouija: Origin of Evil started getting decent reviews I was intrigued, and it became a must-see when I realized that writer/director Mike Flanagan was behind it: Flanagan’s movies aren’t perfect, but they’re consistently more interesting than the average horror film. This Ouija prequel is no exception: For a while, it’s The Conjuring-level good and while the sequel-dictated conclusion does it no favour, it does manage a few effective scares along the way. The start is very promising, what with its vintage sixties iconography (down to the old-school Universal logo and title card), but especially the introduction of a likable family of a woman and two girls doing what they can to get by despite a dead husband/father. Their spiritism sessions are hokum, but they truly want to help people get better. Elizabeth Reaser is striking at the matriarch, while Lulu Wilson and especially Annalise Basso make impressions as the daughters. Alas, the introduction of a Ouija board soon threatens their lives, as demonic possessions rival with the growing realization that they’re inhabiting a haunted house to take the pep out of their days. Plot-wise, those two elements do conflict, but on a scare-per-scare basis, Ouija: Origin of Evil manages to have good moments. My disappointment with the movie grew bigger as I realized that this wasn’t going to be a comforting horror story reinforcing the family unit, but a demolition derby in which any one of the sympathetic characters would be lucky to make it out alive and sane. (I suspect that much of this conclusion is preordained by the requirements to feed into the previous film.) As I grow older, I have less and less patience with horror movies that run out of characters to kill, and so I find myself unable to like this Ouija follow-up: It’s simply too mean to its characters after such a promising start, and that’s an issue that I share with Flanagan’s Oculus as well. A more optimistic conclusion would have allowed the film to be more accessible to non-horror audiences, but that’s not what we get here. Oh well; at least it’s a competent effort.
(Video On-Demand, July 2017) I really wanted to like Life more than I did. After all, while I’m not all that fond of yet another monster-in-space horror/SF movie, the idea of making such a film following the hyper-real example of Gravity (which Life really wants to emulate down to very similar opening tracking shots and South-Asian finale) is intriguing, and so is the cast, leading with the always-sympathetic Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m even open to downbeat finales, provided they make some kind of thematic and plotting sense. But from the first few moments, something is off with Life, and the problems just escalate from there. The issues start with a needlessly obscured “catch the satellite” sequence that barely makes physical sense, but then they get worse as a magical alien life form shows up with no other goal than to kill everyone in increasingly gruesome ways. The impossibly intelligent creature soon makes mincemeat out of the crew, helped along with an absurd succession of dumb character/screenwriting decisions that clearly show that the deck is stacked against a happy ending. The horror sequences are more stomach-churning than entertaining, and the downbeat conclusion depends on a flip of a coin. While it’s kind of daring to kill off your most charismatic character first, and to doom the entire human race by the end, it doesn’t really make for an entertaining movie. Life ends by leaving viewers with the impression of having brushed against something repulsive … which really doesn’t help repeat viewings. For all of the high-tech gloss that makes Life so intriguing, director Daniel Espinosa’s halfway competent execution doesn’t really mask the problems with the script. My tolerance for unhappy endings is growing smaller and smaller every year (and it was never really all that forgiving in the first place), so when an everybody-dies-horribly film like Life comes along, I find it ever easier to dismiss it almost completely.
(On TV, July 2017) It’s no exaggeration to say that the best thing about this film is the cast list. Consider a Coppola film featuring Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise. No wonder it still regularly plays on TV even thirty-five years later. Alas, the actual film itself feels underwhelming. While a good character study of late-sixties teenagers, The Outsiders feels rote and dull compared to other movies tackling the same topics. Some of the plot points feel needlessly melodramatic, while the overall pacing of the film feels dull. The cast is very young, so seeing even famous names is more interesting than satisfying. (Many of them have very small roles too—if you’re hoping for a big Tom Cruise performance, for instance, you will have to make do with only a few moments.) While The Outsiders definitely has some historical curiosity, I found the film a chore to get through, even considering the cast list.
(Video On-Demand, July 2017) The X-Men series has been inconsistent lately, so it’s both a surprise and not a surprise to see Logan end up in the top tier of superhero movies. This third and far superior third volume in the incoherent Wolverine trilogy dares to provide an end for one of its iconic characters. It may be rebooted in a future film, but who cares: Logan is self-contained, definitive and exceptionally well-handled as a mournful future western with low and personal stakes rather than a save-the-world blockbuster. Hugh Jackman is, as usual, quite good as Wolverine—this installment asks him to do far more from an emotional standpoint as one of the last mutants on an Earth that is glad to see them gone, far less powerful than ever before as his healing capabilities are slow to regenerate after fights. For writer/director James Mangold, this is a bit of a quiet triumph, departing from the usual superhero clichés in order to dig deep into the human condition. The action sequences are perfunctory, the future barely sketched (although with some nice background detail, such as driverless trucks) and the film does rely quite a bit on previous material … but it’s well packaged and strikingly different at a time when even major superhero spectacles feel like rote repetition. Logan takes the superhero genre in a different and welcome direction—hopefully it won’t lead to a copycat trend. In the meantime, enjoy the putative end to Jackman’s Wolverine… I’m sure it won’t last.
(On TV, July 2017) Classic structure, quick gags and fast action sequences make Open Season exactly like most other contemporary animated movies out there. That can be good or bad depending on your saturation with such movies at the moment. Alas, I’m currently into something of a burn-out phase for average animated movies—Even if they’re good (and most of them are good), I have trouble getting enthusiastic about yet another familiar spin on the same material. So here we have a neurotic pair of bear and a moose trying to survive hunting season in an attempt to get home. By the time the film concludes, it has worked itself up to a confrontation between the entire forest’s animals and human hunters. The jokes are there, the action moves quickly and the voice talents do their best to interest us, but this early Sony Animation production does fall prey to an unrelenting formula. The quality of the animation has lost its lustre since its release, of course, although it remains generally good. Open Season has led to three direct-to-video sequels so far, but if this first film is the best it can get, then there isn’t any compelling reason to seek out the follow-ups.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) This is terrible. No, not Midnight Run itself, but the fact that Robert de Niro has made so many bad movies since 2000 that even a mildly enjoyable middle-of-the road effort like Midnight Run can feel like it features an entirely different actor. Coming from the late-eighties buddy-movie action road movie factory, Midnight Run often feels like a straightforward comic thriller. It hits all of the right plot beats more or less in order, sets up a decent ticking-clock mechanism, doesn’t make any risky moves, moves fairly briskly and doesn’t forget to have a little bit of heart along the way. In short, it just works, and it works in large part because we have a younger-looking de Niro taking up the lead role with some energy and determination. While not great art, Midnight Run is solid entertainment, and the look at 1988 America (no internet, limited ways to travel, to pay, etc.) is now just dated enough to be interesting. I had a decent time watching it, and few other qualifiers are necessary.
(Video On-Demand, July 2017) Can filmmakers have a second wind? It’s too early to tell for M. Night Shyamalan, but after the triple-barreled nadir of The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth (each of which should have been career-destroying for anyone else), he appears to be on the rebound. I don’t think much of The Visit, but it was a step up, and with Split he’s back to making good movies again. Running wild with the controversial concept of multiple personality disorder (even acknowledging the controversy), Split posits an antagonist with 23 personalities, kidnapping three girls even as a terrifying 24th personality threatens to emerge. James McAvoy has the good fortune of playing the lead character, slipping in and out of various roles and even faking some self-impersonations as the personalities try to pass off for each other. It’s a great performance from an actor who seems to get better and better every year. Anya Taylor-Joy is also very good as the smartest of the three kidnapped girls. Shyamalan himself seems back in form both as a writer and as a director—while neither are as good as in the films that made him famous, Split is an engaging thriller that edges closer and closer to supernatural horror as it goes on. The transition isn’t frustrating, and the ending clearly indicates that we’ve been set up for a follow-up or two. Split isn’t quite a perfect film (it spins its wheels quite a bit at first, goes a bit too dark at times and runs a bit too long) but it’s quite an improvement for Shyamalan, who may be taken off my blacklist after all.
(In French, Video On-Demand, July 2017) Another month, another animated film … and lest anything think I’m complaining about quality, I’m not—most animated movies these days are consistently enjoyable. I’m actually complaining about the sameness of most animated movies. Once you’ve thrown in the anthropomorphized characters, chase sequences, montages and pop song, many animated movies all follow more or less a consistent tone. The Boss Baby is no exception, although its own internal mythology is wilder (and less credible) than most. It does play effectively with some of the current baby and parenting clichés (although, having watched it in French, I had to back-translate some material to make sense of the jokes) and makes up for innocuous family viewing. As a pre-school buddy comedy, it’s not too bad … but it does feel generic most of the time. You can file this one solidly in the average middle for Dreamworks Animation’s releases.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) So there it is. Another Blair Witch movie. Eh. As someone who saw the original movie at a preview screening in theatres (but never bought into the “is it real?” hype) back in July 1999 and was an early annoyed at the whole shaky cam/found footage craze, I went into this sequel/remake who fairly low expectations. They were met, more by default than anything else: Working with threadbare material, director Adam Wingard can put together competent horror set-pieces (there’s an effective piece of claustrophobia near the end), but can’t seem to bring the idea to anything but a repetition of the previous film. The good news, of a sort, are that this Blair Witch is pretty much exactly what The Blair Witch Project would look like had it been conceived today, complete with multiple cameras, a drone and YouTube. The bad news is that repetition is no innovation, and there have been such an endless stream of copycat movies to The Blair Witch Project that even an official sequel feels like a useless movie. Heck, without going all hipster reviewer on you, I remember Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows as more interesting than this sequel (plus, it had nudity). Whatever new ideas are brought up by the film (such as the time loop) aren’t effectively exploited and the whole thing does indeed seem to run in circles. Callie Hernandez and Corbin Reid are sympathetic, but ultimately unable to improve the film much. In the end, we’re left with a shrug. For writer/director pair Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, this seems like a slicker step backward from You’re Next and The Guest. Hopefully they’ve learned a few things and recharged their creative batteries from the experience.
(In French, On TV, July 2017) It turns out that there’s more to Sophie’s Choice than the titular choice made famous by thirty-five years of pop culture: In addition to the Nazi concentration camp drama, there’s a 1947 Brooklyn twisted love triangle featuring a nice-guy writer, damaged Sophie and a volatile schizophrenic. Alas, for audiences without patience, there isn’t much more to Sophie’s Choice than that—at nearly two hours and a half, the movie tests viewers used to a faster pace. It does help that Meryl Streep’s performance is a tour de force, and that she’s able to hit the various emotions asked of the role. (Having watched the film in French, I didn’t get the vocal part of her performance, but the almost ridiculously accented translation suggests that there was a lot of it.) Meanwhile, Kevin Kline (in a debut performance that has little to do with his latter screen persona) is surprisingly disturbing as a character capable of the worst. To contemporary audiences, Sophie’s Choice suffers in two ways: The pacing is far too slow for such a familiar story, and it all leads to a choice that has been spoiled in various ways since 1982. The second isn’t that big of a problem—good movies don’t hinge on twist endings or big revelations—but the first one definitely is: at times, I was struck by the thought that much of the film’s plot would be a sub-plot in a more ambitious film or TV series. See Sophie’s Choice for Streep’s Academy Award-winning performance, but otherwise steel yourself for a dull watch.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Here’s a sad truth, offered in good faith from a humble reviewer to filmmakers out there: Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good a movie is, if it happens to offend the person reviewing it. Now, I’m not easily offended (have you seen what I review?), but I have a special dark place in my heart for anti-science conspiracy theories, and one of the worst ones out there is the idea that the moon landings were faked. It spits in the face of fact, belittles one of humanity’s proudest human achievement and serves no useful purpose other than affirm the believer’s skewed sense of reality. (The only thing that calms me down, somewhat, is the belief that most of the time, the Moon-landing hoax is used in a satirical fashion as a parody of conspiracy theories—it’s a self-referring conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories rather than something that actual people believe.) So, so see a movie like Operation Avalanche play with the basic elements of this conspiracy theory, justifying and explaining how such a conspiracy could be achieved, just simply rubs me the wrong way. Which is too bad, because in a more objective frame of mind, I could recognize the film’s achievements—the way it works with a small budget to present a vast conspiracy, the way it cleverly re-creates its late-sixties atmosphere, the way it cranks up the tension steady. As a low-budget found footage film, it offers something interesting. On the other hand, writer/director/star Matt Johnson’s movie is undeniably flawed: the mockumentary/found footage aspect is frustrating (some of the sequences can’t be justified), the out-of-focus camera Can’t! Stop! Shaking!, the lurch from comedy to deadly thriller is disappointing as evidence that the film is taking itself seriously, and the actors can be annoying. It doesn’t help that the film ends like most found-footage films end, with bad things happening to nearly everyone. None of those annoyances make me feel any better toward a film I was predisposed to dislike despite the curiosity factor of seeing micro-budget filmmakers tackle such a big topic. But who said reviewing was supposed to be objective?
(On Cable TV, July 2017) In many ways, Truth is a tough movie to watch. Whereas other movies will eulogize journalists as fearless truth seekers whose work helps change the world, this 2015 film uses the 2004 Killian documents controversy to deliver a story uniquely suited to 2017’s sadly post-truth era. It’s about journalists doing their best to report explosive documents on a presidential candidate … and then being unable to defend themselves against accusations of biased reporting. Based on journalist Mary Mapes’s memoir of the events, Truth is a stomach-churning docudrama about the nitty-gritty of reporting in a politically charged environment and how truth itself can be elusive despite everyone’s best efforts. Led by the always-excellent Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as a convincing Dan Rather, Truth takes us behind the scenes of TV investigative journalism in all of its quirks in marrying reporting with TV presentations. Alongside them, Topher Grace delivers one of his most animated performances, while Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid have valuable input in smaller roles. It’s often absorbing viewing, but don’t expect an All the President’s Men triumphant finale here as much of the film’s second half is spent dealing with allegations of partisanship, and the ending offers little certitude in who was right. As 2017 unfolds alongside a misleading chorus of “fake news” allegations, Truth takes on a particularly bittersweet quality for anyone who’d like sanity and reason to come back to the mainstream discourse—it feels like an exposé of the primitive tactics that have since then been weaponized to a virulent degree. But then again, movies don’t owe anyone any comfort.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) After the relatively successful 7 Days in Hell, HBO is back with Tour de Pharmacy, another 45-minute comedy special tackling a pseudo-historical sports event—in this case, the 1982 Tour de France, in which so many athletes were disqualified for doping that only five participants remained … and special participants they were. A mixture of talking heads reflecting upon the event and low-budget mockumentary footage, Tour de Pharmacy is in line with the inspired lunacy of 7 Days in Hell: the humour is often absurd, taking off in tangents whenever it feels like it. A bunch of good comedians help sell the results, from Jeff Goldblum to John Cena to Andy Samberg (who also produced and whose signature on the result is obvious) to Will Forte to Orlando Bloom to Maya Rudolph and many, many others. As you’d expect from a modern R-rated comedy, there is a lot of full-frontal male nudity. More daringly, the film does have a string of gags revolving around Lance Armstrong as an “anonymous” source who ends up blatantly revealed early on. It all works relatively well, but largely because the film doesn’t overstay its welcome—at barely 41 minutes, it delivers the jokes and concludes without too much slack. For HBO subscribers, it’s a small tasty summer treat.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) The original Bad Santa became a classic of the counter-sentimental Christmas subgenre, so any sequel would have big shoes to fill. It may not be such a disappointment, therefore, if Bad Santa 2 is more ordinary than amazing. Sadly picking up a decade and a half later with the characters in just-as-bad shape, this sequel moves to Montréal Chicago for wintry theft. The highlight of the movie is probably the mother/son relationship between Billy Bob Thornton and the irreplaceable Kathy Bates, both of them delightfully scummy as lifelong bad influences. Tony Cox shows up again as a violent wildcard, while both Christina Hendricks and Jenny Zigrino show up as voluptuous eye candy. Alas, Brett Kelly also shows up as a grown-up creepy kid (still creepy), and his inclusion in the plot is more sad than hilarious or heartwarming. Bad Santa 2 works best as a foul-mouthed criminal caper procedural than a falsely cynical Christmas movie—it’s not quite able to re-create the original’s blend of world-weary sentimentality. But it does try, and it won’t be out of place when, in two or three years from now, it will tag along the original in a combined Blu-ray edition. Like most R-rated comedies, Bad Santa 2 pushes its jokes as far as it can go, and some of them definitely end up over the line of good taste—even for seasoned R-rated viewers. That’s another reason why even if the movie does scratch more or less the same itch as the original, it won’t qualify for essential viewing even for fans of the subgenre. Underneath the unrelenting stream of foul language, sexual references and overall bad behavior, it’s an average effort made with perfunctory skill. It works, and it will work if viewers are hungry for something like the original, but it’s not much more than that.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) I’m not overly fond of Pedro Amodovar’s movies, but I have to recognize that he’s very good at what he does. He’s able to use melodramatic elements without necessarily feeling exploitative, and as Todo Sobre Mi Madre shows, he’s unusually skilled at presenting female characters. There’s also a welcome unpredictability to his work, especially compared to mainstream American releases—it’s never too clear where things are going, and characters are often killed mercilessly. It’s a different viewing experience and should be approached as such. Alas, a number of things limit my enthusiasm for the result. The pacing is often weird (at times too slow, at times too abrupt when something significant occurs), the meaningful references to other works are numerous and there’s no telling whether the film’s Spanish origins is, in itself, a distancing factor. As I’ve said, my appreciation for the kind of film that is Todo Sobre Mi Madre is limited, but even I have to admit that the result is well-crafted.