(On Cable TV, August 2017) As much as it pains me to say this, I found Lion to be overlong, surprisingly dull and not quite as inspiring as it wants to be. The story of an Indian boy who ends up far away from home, is adopted by an Australian family and then (twenty years later) searches Google Earth to find his hometown, Lion should be far more interesting than it is. It’s certainly not without merit—the first half of the film does portray India with startling details, and it’s hard not to feel empathy for a five-year-old boy forced to survive so far away from home, with no idea how to get back. Then the film skips ahead, and can rely on the charm of Dev Patel as an expatriate finally using the resources at his disposal to find where he came from. There’s a little bit of modern technology marvelment as Google Earth is used to track down where he could be coming from, and then a conclusion’s worth of bittersweet happiness as he finds his mother again. But Lion is very, very long for the (admittedly true and untidy) story it tells, and at times it’s easy to wish that it would move just a bit faster. It also asks a lot of some viewers, and I’m not sure I can, as a dad, stomach the possibility of a five-year-old being lost so far away from home with no hope of returning. As a result, while the film is far from being a waste of time, I’m not quite as bullish on Lion as I’d like to be.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) It’s hard to accurately gauge whether an actor is smart from their screen performances alone. The best ones can play characters completely unlike themselves and we’d never know. But I have a growing suspicion that you can tell a lot about an actor by the roles they choose to play. Now, I won’t make any accusations about Will Smith (whom I still rather like a lot), but looking at a filmography that includes Seven Pounds and After Earth and now Collateral Beauty, I have to ask—is he even reading those scripts? Replace After Earth by the more respectable The Pursuit of Happiness and you would have an instant trilogy of manipulative faux-inspiring dramas that are so melodramatic as to court unintentional hilarity. So it is that Collateral Beauty is so ill-conceived from the start (something about a grieving man writing to Death, Time and Love, and then scheming co-workers hiring actors to play Death, Time and Love) that the first half hour plays as a farce despite itself, ridiculous while insisting otherwise. Things really don’t improve much during the last act of the film, in which two bigger revelations are dropped upon the audience, unfortunately earning nothing more than two big collective shrugs. Collateral Beauty is convinced that it has something profound and poignant to say, but it has forgotten to check whether audiences agree. I suspect that reactions will vary widely—as for myself, I’ve seen too many of those movies to be impressed. Now, I won’t make too much of Smith’s talents for script-picking considering that the cast also includes reliable performers such as Hellen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Peña and (to a lesser extent) Kiera Knightley. They may all have gone insane, but then again maybe I’m out to lunch on this particular film. Either way, I can only report that the result feels like a falsely profound tearjerker attempt. The premise seems so flawed that I’m not sure anything could have been done to rescue the result from unintended laughter. The twists won’t matter so much when it’s established early on that the movie stems from an inane place.
(On TV, August 2017) From the very first disorienting moments of Stay, what with its first-person sequences, a psychiatrist protagonist and hints of something stranger going on, it’s obvious that this is going to be a twisty thriller. Ewan MacGregor stars as a therapist trying to help a troubled young man not to commit suicide, but his probing only reveals more confusion. Meanwhile, Naomi Watts is troubled as his girlfriend and Ryan Gosling, back in his punchable-face pre-Notebook early career, is suitably abrasive as the suicidal student. As the movie goes on, it makes less and less sense and experienced viewers may choose to disembark from the emotional train at this point, suspecting that it’s headed for a crash. The resolution of the film would prove them right, as it conjures up a weak explanation for the film that nonetheless manages to make a mockery out of it, merely one step removed from “it was all a dream.” What a disappointment, coming from director Marc Foster (Stranger than Fiction, World War Z, etc.) and screenwriter David Benioff (Game of Thrones). But what saves the film from complete failure is Foster’s intense stylistic touch, infusing to the film a style that keeps it interesting even as we begin to suspect that it’s narratively hollow. I’d use “Lynchian” carefully, and not as a term of endearment. Small interesting segments do not amount to a satisfying whole, especially when it’s the film meta-narrative conceit that it’s a whole assembled out of fragments. I went into Stay completely cold (as in; unaware of its content) and can’t recommend the experience—like many movies who keep a self-conscious punch for the end, it may best be seen as warm as possible: Read the rather good Wikipedia plot summary first, and then see the film for yourself fully expecting the twist. Maybe it’ll be more satisfying like that.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I approached a much-belated second viewing of Tron with some apprehension. While I remember being awed at the first one sometime in the mid-eighties (not to mention being aware of much of the promotional material upon the film’s release), I feared that the hype and subsequent cult-following would be detrimental to the movie. As steeped in then cutting-edge special effects, would Tron have aged gracefully? As it turns out … it’s not as bad as I had feared. Tron definitely has its rough edges. Never mind the special effects: just the script itself is full of clunky dialogue, badly-integrated elements, a tone that can’t quite figure out whether it’s addressing kids or adults, and insignificant tangents. The plot structure is a mess with characters being introduced (or removed/ignored) at odd times. It feels messy rather than complex, and the silly dialogue will make anyone itch for just one more script rewrite. Fortunately, plot is among Tron’s least important qualities. It’s far more interesting to talk about its visual design, relationship to socio-technological history and fantasy world-building. Tron has aged rather well as a special-effects showcase: While technology has evolved far beyond the simple CGI available at the time, Tron does have its own style and works best when it exploits the limits of this style. Reading about the film’s production history explains why the colour scheme is inconsistent (basically: they changed it during production), but much of it still impresses even thirty-five years later. Unfortunately, the world-building is inconsistent: while it’s really good in setting the story in 1982 and occasionally in creating a society within the computer, it quickly turns embarrassing in some of the ways it tries to develop the cyber-world aspects: Part of it is due to writing a cutting-edge film for young audiences, but part of it is also due to viewers’ greater familiarity with computing technology that would have seemed magical in 1982. For amateur techno-historians, Tron is a fascinating look at how society viewed computers early in the consumer electronics era, with a suspicion that there was more under the hood than we suspected. (Ah, if they only knew! Nowadays, computers can host rivalling bots, in-between automated update agents, organized crime botnet clients and intelligence agency backdoors…) I’ve got a vague idea in my mind for a retro-computing mini-film festival featuring Wargames, Tron and Superman III… [Oh wow, I’m only thirty-three years late to this grouping] Still, getting back to Tron itself, it has aged more gracefully than I expected. Style and audaciousness can help forgive plot and structure, then as now. It helps that Jeff Bridges had a charismatic screen presence, but even he would probably admit that Tron has enduring cult appeal not based on his looks as much as the fantastic images around him.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) Laughing at deaths in horror movies isn’t necessarily a sign of psychopathy. As Damien: Omen II shows, it can be a perfectly valid reaction to over-the-top filmmaking. Let’s not pretend that this sequel is a vast step down for the series: The original The Omen certainly had its share of overdone moments and aggressive cues: its decapitation sequence remains a case study in how nominally terrifying material can become risible through pathos overload. Damien seems to have retained most of the wrong lessons from its predecessor in a very loose follow-up: Its death scenes are just as ridiculous, and its structure boils down to a series of loops in which secondary characters try to warn the protagonist about the evil of Damien, only to die horribly. It gets amusing, then ridiculous, then tiresome, then annoying. While I still like some elements of the film (giving the lead role to William Holden as a visibly elderly man, for instance, or the final twist in which the true allegiance of the wife is revealed), much of it is sensationalistic tripe with a blaring soundtrack that will tell you when you should be scared. The late-seventies atmosphere makes Damien slightly more interesting now than it was upon release, but that’s not quite enough to make it an essential viewing other than following up on the original.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) While acknowledging that The Mission is a good film, I must also report my almost complete lack of interest in it. The story of missionaries deep in unsympathetic South American surroundings, The Mission is a heartfelt look at a difficult chapter in history. Despite the lavish location shooting, the colourful cinematography, the calibre of the actors (not only Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, but also Aidan Quinn and Liam Neeson in minor roles) and the serious subject matter presented soberly, I repeatedly failed to become interested in The Mission. Bad timing? Esoteric subject matter? Overdose of epic films? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try again in a decade or two.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) As a mild Harry Potter fan, I wasn’t expecting much from spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. With Colin Farrell lurking in a supporting role, I was even envisioning a Winter’s Tale-sized debacle. But the result, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s savvy script and Warner Brothers’ willingness to bankroll a lavish production, is surprisingly good. Eddie Redmayne is very good as Newt Scamander, an awkward wizard with more affinity with fantastic animals than people. He arrives in New York City in time for us to get a long good satisfying look at a lavish re-creation of 1920s NYC, crammed with details and enough CGI to impress anyone. Director David Yates moves the story along at a good clip, first as light comedy and then increasingly as a full fantastic drama. The ending deserves a special mention, as it is more thematically resonant than most other forgettable CGI fantasy fests of recent years—the hero doesn’t get to pulverize his opponent out of brawn, and whatever clichés remain (city in peril, memories wiped) and handled far more gracefully than elsewhere. Production design is important: The rebuilding-the-city sequence that so annoyed me in Jupiter Ascending is transformed here in a delightful sequence by sheer accumulation of details. Spending time in 1920s NYC turns out to be a lot of fun, and no expense seems to have been spared in putting details on-screen. Redmayne is backed-up with a good cast: while Katherine Waterston has a mostly unglamorous role as a flapper voice of reason, Alison Sudol is a lot more fun as her blonde bombshell sister, gaining importance as the story goes on and falling for Dan Fogler’s unexpectedly likable character. As far as big-screen CGI spectacles go, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is far more tolerable than most of the recent fantasy epics, and it feels substantially more sophisticated than many franchise-building attempts. It’s got a heart despite the big budget, and it’s so different from the Potter movies that it can be appreciated as a standalone effort. Its nature as a prequel doesn’t hamper its effectiveness or ability to surprise, and the way it leisurely reveals its fantastic assets is wondrous rather than slow. All in all, a better-than-expected effort at a time when we’ve grown used to the commodification of the fantastic in movies. All it takes is a good script and enough resources to do it justice…
(In French, on Cable TV, August 2017) Given the western genre’s continued tendency to reach for dour drama, it can be a relief, even decades later, to encounter a light-hearted western. It feels even more refreshing to see it use its western setting as a springboard for a gambling conman comedy. In Maverick, Mel Gibson is practically perfect as a wisecracking protagonist equally adept with cards and guns, bluffing and shooting his way to a high-stakes gambling tournament. It’s a fine performance in his best persona, but it’s equalled by Jodie Foster in an atypical western bombshell role—Foster’s long been known for playing mostly cerebral, often desexualized roles, so it’s a bit of a delight to see her play up blonde curls and tight dresses. Other name actors round up the cast, in-between James Coburn, Dan Hedeya, James Garner, Graham Greene and Alfred Molina … plus more cameo roles than you’ll be able to recognize. Director Richard Donner’s rapid pacing helps its entertainment value, but there is considerable charm in its setting and attitude—not many westerns have steamboats, and fewer include rapid-fire romantic repartee or wryly funny native characters. The script, by legendary William Goldman, is as good as you’d expect, with a pile-up of confidence games and triple-crossing characters in addition to the western backdrop. Maverick is not a great movie, but it remains a really good one.
(On DVD, August 2017) Is A Fish Called Wanda overhyped, or was I just in the wrong mood for it? No matter the reason, I’m tempted to label this acknowledged classic as mildly amusing and leave it at that. The fault isn’t with the actors: John Cleese is in fine full persona as a stiff upper-lip barrister, seduced by a curiously sexualized Jamie Lee Curtis as part of a larger robbery plot. Various quirky characters populate the edges of the film, none more forcefully than Kevin Kline as a grossly caricatured American villain. The script is densely plotted for a comedy, and it deftly mixes physical comedy with fine repartee (the apology moment is a quote for the ages). The direction is sometimes more dynamic than expected, and that may be a clue to A Fish Called Wanda’s more humdrum reception today: What may have been striking back in 1988 is the norm today. I may have been partially inoculated to the film’s charm by having watched its “equal” Fierce Creatures a few months ago—the two films share the same sensibilities, and the first one seen may end up feeling like the better of the two. Still, it’s not as if I disliked A Fish Called Wanda: I merely found it good but underwhelming, and there are worse critical assessments out there.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I gave 3000 Miles to Graceland a pass when it first came out, discouraged by the terrible reviews and probably captivated by some other film (let me check … ah yes: Monkeybone came out that weekend, followed in the next few weeks by The Mexican, 15 Minutes, Enemy at the Gates and Memento, all of which I saw at the theatre). Sixteen years later, the film is not quite as bad as I thought it would be. Part of it, I think, can be explained by Tarantino fatigue dissipating—3000 Miles to Graceland is a very stylish, very violent road movie, and writer/director Demian Lichtenstein seems eager to work in more or less the same stylized criminal comedy subgenre that had movie reviewers burnt out by 2001. Here in 2017, the thought of an unseen Tarantino-esque film can be interesting because there are comparatively fewer of them being made. It’s no accident if 3000 Miles to Graceland is far more interesting in its first half-hour than the sometimes-grating hours and a half that follows: It’s also the most deliberately stylized act of the film, the one that most closely apes the exuberant crime comedies of the time. That casino shootout is bloody fun (helped along by a bouncy turn-of-the-century techno soundtrack) and the way some characters are abruptly dispatched gives a welcome initial sense of unpredictability to the film. Kurt Russell is instantly likable as the anti-hero, while Kevin Costner does push his persona outside his comfort zone by playing an irremediable villain. (Compare and contrast his performance in 2016’s Criminal.) Courteney Cox is sexier than expected, while the unexpectedly good cast is rounded out by familiar faces such as Christian Slater, Kevin Pollak, David Arquette, Jon Lovitz, Thomas Haden Church and Ice-T. The best moments of the film have a good rhythm to them. But then the film goes on, and on, and on, becoming steadily more ordinary along the way. The promising Elvis-themed casino heist becomes a revenge road movie with awfully convenient plotting, with the stylishness and unpredictability flying away in the distance. There is, in the end, a lot of wasted potential—and even clinging to what works or almost works in 3000 Miles to Graceland can’t quite save it from mixed feelings.
(On DVD, August 2017) Normally, I’m not too happy to report that a sequel is “more of the same,” but given my enthusiasm for 1990’s The Addams Family, I’m almost overjoyed to say that this sequel is, indeed, more of the same. The plot is just different enough to be interesting (as Fester is seduced by a gold-digging, husband-killing new character) but the atmosphere of the first film remains largely the same. Under the macabre humour lies genuine family love (although some early segments do push the limits of sibling rivalry), and the jokes are best when they’re unexpected. (I laughed far more than I ought to have at a simple “I respect that” or “Wait”) The strengths of the two Addams Family movies are the set pieces more than the plot, and this one does have one of the most honest depiction of Thanksgiving put on film, as well as a hilariously juvenile justification (with slides!) from the antagonist. Director Barry Sonnefeld has made one of his good movies here (the rest of his career … hit-and-miss), but much of the credit goes to the actors themselves. Raul Julia is fantastic as Gomez, Anjelica Huston is just as good as Morticia (while her impassible giving-birth scene is great, it took me far too long to notice the lighting effect on her eyes, but then it became hilarious to see it used in all circumstances), Christina Ricci shines as Wednesday and Joan Cusak holds up as Debbie. This sequel clicks in the same ways the original did, and yet still feels fresh enough to avoid accusations of re-threading. At this point, don’t bother seeing the first film if you don’t have Addams Family Values nearby, ready to be watched.
(In French, On TV, August 2017) It’s hard to see rubber-suited people playing ninja turtles without feeling as if the last exit for goofiness was about fifty miles behind, but sometimes that’s the entire point. The 1990 version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles embraces its nuttiness and doesn’t really care if everyone thinks it’s silly. A comedy more than anything else, it doesn’t aspire to higher pretensions than entertaining the kids. Sure, it may look silly, but it’s well-executed silliness, with just enough conviction to sidestep the worst accusations of cookie-cutter filmmaking. The turtles themselves come from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, one of the best in the business at the time. As far as human characters are concerned, Judith Hoag is cute enough as reporter April O’Neil. Ironically, the two more modern adaptations of the franchise may only help to bolster the profile of the first film in the series—this one is goofy and it knows it, whereas the subsequent ones often lose their ways in trying to present an action spectacle. I was probably five years too old back in 1990 to get into the Turtles and I’m faaar too old now, so it’s not as if I have any sentimental attachment to the characters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sometimes degenerates in a generic martial-art noise—the characters are too similar, the darkly lit sets are dull and the fights feel as if they could come from any similar film—but, periodically, it has just the right amount of humour to make itself interesting again. Considering the intentionally ludicrous source material, it’s about as good as anyone could have hoped for.
(Video On-Demand, August 2017) The first John Wick was a small surprise: a lean and mean action film the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a while from big studios. It made Keanu Reeves cool again, showed why stunt-minded filmmakers could thrive in an age of CGI and made nearly everyone hungry for more. John Wick 2 arrives with self-awareness of what fans want to see, and the result is obvious from the opening action sequence bringing car stunts to the table. After that, the plot kicks in high gear by delving deeper in the comic-book-inspired mythology of the series, which features a shadowy underworld of professional assassins with hard-coded rules. The plot isn’t complex, but it works and its minimalism narrative leaves enough space for maximalist execution. Once again, the details and small action beats help sell the wild fantasy of the premise, such as pinning down an opponent while reloading, in the same movie where two assassins have a silenced gunfight in the middle of a subway station or a hallucinogenic hall-of-mirror sequence. Reeves is, once again, very good as the titular assassin, trying to get out of the hired-kill life but being drawn back even deeper. There are able supporting turns by Lawrence Fishburne and Ruby Rose. John Wick: Chapter 2 concludes on a note that is either an exhilarating set-up for a third volume, or a realistic acknowledgement that there is no end to violence and no happy ending for the character. Much of the original film’s surprise is gone, but it’s been supplanted with bigger-budget execution and much more of what made the first film so effective. There will be a third movie, and it’s eagerly awaited.
(On TV, August 2017) I may have made a mistake in watching Escape from L.A. a few weeks ago, before seeing the original Escape from New York. Both films do run against very similar lines, after all: juvenile bad guys sent under duress in a forbidden zone to get someone back, but so anti-authority that they end up rebelling at some point. Escape from L.A. apes the first film almost plot point per point, down to the lunacy of some sequences. But while you would think that watching the first one so soon after the second would lower my appreciation of the first one, the reverse ended up happening: it only made me dislike the second one even more. I recognize that you can’t really blame the first for the excesses of the second. But more to the point, the first one is simply better-executed in the constraints of its formula. Never mind that the premise of turning Manhattan Island in a prison is nonsensical: the point here is putting up a backdrop for dystopian action. Peak-era Adrienne Barbeau is always welcome, but Kurt Russell is most remarkable as Snake Plissken, first in a series of likable rogues that he’d get to play for the rest of his career. The entire film has an edge of writer/director John Carpenter’s inspired lunacy to it, from strange set pieces to audacious set design to unconventional characters to sometimes-shocking moments (such as the president going full-crazy near the climax). Escape from New York does have its annoyances, and those do mirror those of its sequel: the oh-so-cool protagonist with an attitude that mostly appeals to teenagers; the nihilistic conclusion; the moronic elements of its premise; the tiring nature of its post-apocalyptic chic. But seeing Escape from New York at a time when (say) The Walking Dead is practically mainstream TV must be very different from seeing Escape from New York in 1981. It may not be fresh by today’s standards, but it’s easy to respect its place as a film that influenced many others. I still won’t forgive the sequel, though.
(On TV, August 2017) I think that Miller’s Crossing is the last film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography that I hadn’t yet seen, and it’s quite a treat. A self-conscious take on Prohibition-era noir movies, it plays gleefully with the elements of the genre in a dense and complex feat of plotting. A young Gabriel Byrne stars as a criminal advisor who ends up trying to manipulate multiple factions when a mob war shakes the city and his own relationships. The characters rarely stop talking, and much of the rapid-fire dialogue is highly entertaining (although you may need subtitles given the pacing and accents—the closed captioning had trouble keeping up!) Albert Finney is also remarkable as a crime boss, but perhaps the most striking performance comes from Marcia Gay Hayden, whose sexy femme fatale character here is completely at odds with her contemporary persona as a matronly shrew (e.g.; The Mist). Otherwise, it’s tommy guns, crooked cops, beatdowns, faked deaths and double-crossing fun galore in a warm bath of genre elements. I suspect that Miller’s Crossing is more fun the more you know and like noir films, but even casual fans of the genre will find a lot to like here. I have, over the past few months, had an unfortunate tendency to multitask while watching (some) movies, but Miller’s Crossing hooked me back in the moment I tried to take my attention elsewhere. Now that’s viewing pleasure.