(On Cable TV, October 2017) My rule of thumb for David Lynch is that the more conventional his movies get, the better I like them. (The Straight Story and The Elephant Man would suggest that some sentimentality also helps, but Dune doesn’t really fit in that pattern.) In any case, The Elephant Man is only grotesque on the surface, as a horribly deformed man (John Hurt, justifiably unrecognizable) is taken in by a benevolent doctor (a very young Anthony Hopkins, looking unusually dashing with a black beard), revealing his sensitive nature to Victorian-era London even as some people can’t see past appearances. There is a strong sympathy here for the marginal protagonist of the story, and it’s that sympathy that carries through the movie even as the lead character gets kidnapped, abused, insulted and wounded. It ends beautifully (if tragically), which wasn’t a given considering the dour nature of the humans in the story. The Elephant Man isn’t perfect: there’s quite a bit of manipulation in hiding the protagonist’s true nature for a long time before the end of the first act, and it’s best not to dig too deep in the real events that inspired the film. On the other hand, it’s a more effective Lynch film because it is grounded more strongly in reality, which doesn’t preclude some pointed questions about human nature and motives. The re-creation of Victorian London is evocative, and the direction has its moments of interest. While I’m not going to pretend that I liked the film more than I did, it does come as an antidote to my recent viewing of Eraserhead, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) The real collisions in Collide are the mismatch between the film’s cast and the pedestrian script … or the way it comes alive during its action sequences, only to wallow in far less exciting clichés once the guns and the cars quiet down. In many ways, few things distinguish Collide from countless other mid-budget action movies that clutter up the VOD release calendar: the script is a collection of familiar plot elements arranged in excessive thriller melodrama, featuring literary allusions that never add up to something like subtext or depth. It takes place in Europe, for lower shooting budgets, foreign financing partners and slightly exotic atmosphere … not to mention the bonus xenophobia considering that the two protagonists are American expats. What sets Collide apart are the presence of living legends Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins as duelling crime lords—money is obviously the answer as to what they’re doing here, which doesn’t make the end result less intriguing to watch. Hopkins is on autopilot while spouting classical literature references as an upper-class crime lord, while Kingsley is also in familiar-persona mode (viz; Lucky Number Slevin, Sexy Beast, even Iron Man 3) as a crude trash-talking nouveau-riche kingpin. Seeing them face off is sort of interesting despite the lacklustre film around them, including generic leads played by Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones. Fortunately, another highlight comes whenever the action starts and the cars start racing each other on the autobahn. Director Eran Creevy seems far more interested in fast mayhem and Collide has at least a modest charge for action junkies. It’s also a modest step up from his previous Welcome to the Punch, although there is still a long way to go. Collide doesn’t really escape the limitations of the mid-budget action thriller, but anyone who risks a viewing should find one or two things to break the tedium.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Early word on Westworld was not good. Hyped by HBO as their next big-budget SF&F show now that Game of Thrones is on its way out, the show suffered ominous-sounding production delays while scripts were re-tuned, which didn’t bode well in the wake of Vinyl’s failure. But while this first season definitely has its issues, the result occasionally reaches delirious peaks of peak TV goodness, playing with savvy audience expectations and delivering reality-altering perceptional shift. While the show begins and more or less ends where Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie did, there’s a lot of complexity under the surface, and the attitudinal shifts in the show’s sympathies for artificial humans is notable. In-between Inception and Memento, show-runner Jonathan Nolan is known for mind-warping scripts and Westworld is occasionally no different: the first episode is a fantastically twisted introduction to a familiar concept, while the end-stretch of the series delivers solid revelations about the nature of some characters, narrative time-play and unexpectedly philosophical rambling. It’s hardly perfect: much of the stretch between episodes 2 and 6 could have been compressed in half the time, while the so-called deep thoughts of the conclusion feel both ponderous and nonsensical. But when Westworld works, it really works. Episodes 1, 7 and 10 alone are worth the long stretches in-between. Top-notch actors such as Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton deliver good performances, the script cleverly plays to an audience that demands more from their TV miniseries and the visual polish of the result can be astonishing. Even the most pretentious aspects of the script can be seen as a plus given how high it aims. The sympathy of the series for its synthetic characters is a notable representation of the maturing of media Science Fiction—especially when humans act this rotten, can we really blame the robots for turning on their masters? I’m not sure where season 2 can take us, but as far as HBO is concerned, it’s mission accomplished for Westworld—expectations run high for the follow-up.
(On DVD, June 2017) Back in the nineties, if you wanted to win Oscars, there weren’t better strategies than going big in the way Legends of the Fall goes big. Take a western, throw in a war drama, then a prohibition subplot, then keep going so that the love complications span decades, involve numerous horrible deaths and settle into some kind of American-frontier bromides. (Plus, add as blatant a case of Chekhov’s gun as I can recall.) It seems cynical, but it does work: The film has uncommon scope and sweep even as it lines up a different subgenre every thirty minutes or so. It helps that it can depend on the reliable Anthony Hopkins as an opinionated patriarch (even though his later appearances in the film can cause unintentional hilarity) and cusp-of-stardom Brad Pitt in the bad-boy role … and Aiden Quinn as the son trying to be socially respectable. Opposite the men, Julia Ormond plays the object of three brothers’ affection, with Karine Lombard showing up briefly to provide a distraction. The stereotypes flock and accumulate in the film, but they sort-of-work, especially if you have a soft spot for American-frontier epics. Legends of the Fall may not be subtle, and it may not be innovative, but there’s something respectable in its blunt-force approach to a moderately respectable tear-jerker.
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) I’m not, in theory, a big fan of supernatural police thrillers—usually, the fantastic elements overwhelm the procedural aspects of the thriller and make much of it moot. Solace’s particular reputation is affected by the knowledge that it took nearly two years to be released, and that it ended up on VOD rather than theatres. All of this makes up for low expectations, but there’s something curiously engaging in the result. The plot is filled with nonsense, the “rules” are barely adhered to, the characters are sometimes barely sketched … but it sort of works thanks to the directing and acting. Anthony Hopkins headlines the film, playing a psychic asked by a police friend to help with one last case … a case that seems to be targeting him directly. Colin Farrell turns in a remarkable third-act appearance as the antagonist, marking up another good supporting role now that he’s wisely shied away from superstar status. But director Afonso Poyart turns in the best performance with savvy directing that’s not above borrowing familiar images and methods, but still elevating the material above B-grade status. There’s a surprising amount of special effects, especially in the last third of the film, keeping up Solace’s ability to keep viewers interested in the most basic what-will-happen-next sense. There’s some interesting material in the conclusion of the film, even as broad as it can be at times. In short, I had a better-than-expected time, and that’s enough for a marginal recommendation as something more than the usual VOD thriller.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) I really like Chris Rock as a performer, so seeing him alongside Anthony Hopkins in the middle of an espionage comedy should have been interesting. But while Bad Company has its moments of inspiration, it doesn’t rise to much more than a middle-of-the-road action comedy. Unlike some similar film (and there are plenty of similarities between this one and its 2002 contemporary I Spy), Bad Company doesn’t have much in terms of action, focusing rather on the verbal sparring between Rock and Hopkins, as well as a plot that could have served as a basis for a much more serious film. Here, Rock plays a gifted street hustler who is recruited by the American government to impersonate his long-lost twin brother. Street meets high society with a big splash of undercover intrigue—you can imagine the predictable laughs that the street-smart protagonist gets once he confronts both the CIA, upper-class friends of his brother and eastern European terrorist villains. Thanks to Joel Shumacher’s competent direction, the film moves at a good clip and nearly always looks good. Still, the most memorable sequences have more to do with comedy (such as Hopkin’s lame attempt to bring him back into the fold, or whenever Kerry Washington shows up as his brother’s exploitative girlfriend) that with suspense, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As a vehicle for Rock, Bad Company isn’t bad, but it doesn’t rise much above that.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) My expectations were pleasantly exceeded by this Dracula’s grandiose and overdone take of Bram Stoker’s classic. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the film’s blend of pre-digital special effects, unabashed naughtiness, over-the-top direction (thanks to Francis Ford Coppola), melodramatic acting and scenery-chewing restlessness made it feel remarkably fresh even twenty-five years later. Adapting the epistolary Stoker novel will always be difficult, but Dracula gives it a spirited go, with a blend of various techniques to evoke the letters of the original, operatic visuals, dramatic dialogue and go-for-broke modernity. The special effects are made even better by the lack of a digital safety net, but Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins provide all of the film’s spectacle via consciously overdone acting. The film has far more sex appeal than I’d expected, laying bare the Victorian metaphors and double entendres that were in the novel, and making good use of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost. (Plus, hey: an early role for Monica Bellucci.) The sour note here remains Keanu Reeves, earnest but sleepwalking though a role that demanded far more energy. Still, this Dracula is a lot of fun in its own devilish way, and it’s this eagerness to be as flamboyant as possible that makes the film still well worth seeing a quarter of a century later.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) There’s some logic in seeing David Mamet tackling a wilderness-survival story. Given Mamet’s career-long obsessions with masculinity and how men deal with each other, it’s ready to see the attraction in pitting a few men against nature in far-away Alaska, especially when two of the men are competing for the same woman. Still, there’s a bit of a gulf between concept and execution, and if The Edge does well most of the time (especially in presenting a terrifying bear attack), there are a few issues with the result that keep it from being as good as it could be. While Anthony Hopkins is interesting as a billionaire-bookworm-turning-super-survivalist (including a few choice macho one-liners), the very nature of his character seems a bit too close to wish-fulfillment. (For that matter, the bear seems a bit too wilfully evil as well.) Alec Balwdwin’s up to his usual borderline-slimy level, though. Still, the scenery isn’t bad, and there are enough little twists and turns here and there to keep things interesting. The Edge has stood up the test of time decently as well.
(On DVD, July 2015) It’s rare to squarely point at length as a film’s main point of failure; usually, if the film is good then a few lulls won’t damage it; conversely, if a film is bad it will feel long even at 85 minutes. But Meet Joe Black is something else: A film with pretty good moments, marred by interminable subplots and, thanks to director Marti Brest, a shooting style that never makes a point in five seconds if thirty will do. A very young-looking Brad Pitt starts as Death incarnate, taking a holiday among humans to understand how we act like we do. Opposite him, Anthony Hopkins plays a Hollywood rarity: a wealthy man with some innate decency, a genuinely good guy who nonetheless escape caricature. Finally, Claire Forlani has never looked better than she does here as the daughter of the wealthy man, seduced by Death’s innocence. (Which leads to a pretty funny scene in which our businessman comes to realize that Death, nominally there to get him, has ended up sleeping with his daughter.) The film does have an understated poignancy, as death and his target negotiate the terms of our businessman’s death over a few days, timing it to ensure a small triumph. And while the film does have a few unintentionally hilarious moments (That shot of Pitt’s character being hit by two cars plays beautifully as a looped gif), it’s generally earnest in its musings. But, as stated previously, the film is fatally wounded by its pacing. There simply isn’t enough plot to justify the three-hours (!) running length –in fact, the pacing issues are glaringly obvious on an individual scene level as there is no snappiness to the editing and sequences always run longer than you’d expect. Lop off an hour (from the script, not in the editing room) and you’d have a far more potent film. As it is, though, Meet Joe Black will repeatedly put anyone to sleep.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) There is something almost interesting in the themes that Kidnapping Mr. Heineken develops in its last third, once past the conception and execution of a rich man’s kidnapping: the idea that crime destroys friendships and that it’s hard to know where things will stop once you’ve decided to break the law. Perhaps unfortunately, though, those themes come as afterthoughts and are explored superficially. What’s left is a dreary European crime thriller, featuring interesting actors (most notably Anthony Hopkins and Sam Worthington) but restrained by the facts of the true story of beer magnate Freddy Heineken’s kidnapping in 1983 by a small group of unexperienced friends trying to get fast money through a ransom request. Things don’t go as planned, especially once they do get the ransom and the group splits apart on ideological differences. Worthington is the solid (maybe bland) anchor of the piece, with Hopkins providing a better performance than the film around him. Otherwise, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken does blur into a generally lifeless crime story, aside from a bit of a twist toward the end. It’s not bad, but it’s more ordinary than it should have been.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) The original Red dared to combine aging action stars with quirky comedy and strong action sequences to deliver a film that wasn’t entirely successful, but remained distinctive enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. This sequel is slightly improved by a better understanding of how to combine humor with action, and it can dispense with the tedious work of introducing its main characters. Bruce Willis plays his familiar world-weary tough-guy role, quipping when he’s not exasperated at being thrown once again out of retirement. Among the returning cast, Helen Mirren is as much fun as ever as a top assassin, while John Malkovich is a bit less crazy (but more sympathetic) this time around, even as Mary Louise Parker furthers her transition from adrenaline junkie to rookie operative. There’s a fascinating “throwback to the cold war era” atmosphere as the action goes well beyond the borders of the United States and to Europe, with Anthony Hopkins bringing new laughs as a crazed weapons designer and Catherine Zeta Jones earning a few chuckles of her own as a once-fatale assassin. While the CGI works gets a bit tiresome by the end of the final chase sequence, most of the other action scenes are good enough. Red 2 doesn’t work on a particularly high level, but it’s adequate and in some ways moves past the whole “retired action heroes” shtick into a post-Cold War plot that seems to grow organically out of the characters’ age. It works just fine as an unassuming action film, and even a little better as a sequel.
(Video on Demand, March 2013) More than thirty years after Alfred Hitchcock’s death, the influence of the director over the thriller genre still reigns supreme, so it makes sense that a biography would seek to present the man to a contemporary audience. Taking the making of Psycho as its narrative hook, Hitchcock stars a heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins as the celebrated director, stuffing a romantic comedy and a study of Hitchcock’s entire career and quirks into a handily convenient narrative. If you’re wondering about the fidelity of the film to real events or even its literary inspiration (Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho), you may as well avoid digging too deep: Hitchcock is a heavily-fictionalized take loosely inspired by real events, but the film’s romantic theme is nowhere to be found in the book (where Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, barely gets a role and Danny Huston’s Whitfield Cook is not even mentioned), and nearly every scene contains material that only makes sense if you’re aware of Hitchchock’s legacy. It does feel a bit artificial and pat, exactly as if the screenwriters were cramming everything worth saying about the director into a comic film covering a small part of his life, and including a modern take on spousal collaborations just to provide a romantic arc to the film. But such are the conveniences of dramatized biographies, after all: the point isn’t in faithfully presenting reality as much as it is to provide an entertaining capsule summary of a complex person. In this regard, Hitchcock fares better: The script feels as if every detail is in its place, the humor is used effectively (“That’s why they call me ‘The Master of Suspense’”) and its structure is clearly meant to leave viewers elated at the success of Psycho, Hitchcock and his renewed sense of matrimonial partnership. There are a few clever sequences here and there, whether it’s Hitchcock listening to his audience’s reaction, or the way the mechanics of filmmaking are brought to life. Not everything works –the interludes in which Hitchcock converses with his fantasy of a murderer are distracting and suggest a fantastical quality to the film that it did not need. Still, as filmmaking homages go, this is straight-up Hollywood: The actors are all doing good work (Other than Hopkins-as-Hitchcock, Hellen Mirren is remarkable as Alma Reville), the cinematography is clean and everything wraps up neatly. Who cares, then, if Hitchcock takes frequent liberties with historical events?
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Critics weren’t kind to this remake of the 1941 horror-classic and, up to a certain point, it’s easy to see why: There isn’t much of a story here, nor too many chills. The tone can be inconsistent, and some moments feel more ridiculous than anything else. Additionally, the winks and nods to horror fans sometimes lead the story into small dead-ends (eg; the silver cane). Still, The Wolfman has a lot going for it in the visual department, from an effective gothic atmosphere to Joe Johnston’s often-clever direction. The makeup and special effects are used wisely and the cinematography can be adequately lugubrious at times. While not up to Tim Burton’s standards (You should see The Wolfman in a double-bill with Sleepy Hollow), there is a lot to like in the film’s visual presentation, which is a notch over the usual horror film. Unfortunately, the assets are often undermined by gratuitous gore taking down the film’s moment-to-moment impact from high-art to low-schlock, and there is a sense that the straightforward narrative isn’t up to the setting it inhabits. (Much like Anthony Hopkins seems to be slumming in a one-dimensional role.) Oh well; at least Benicio del Toro and Hugo Weaving can be compelling to watch, and if viewers get bored, there’s usually a nice image every few moments to keep things interesting.
(In theaters, May 2000) Frustrating because it is, at the same time, so bad and so good. The script is one of the sorriest excuse for an “action” film I’ve seen in a blockbuster for a long, long time. Say what you want about Armageddon, at least it had pacing on its side. Not so with Mission: Impossible 2: If the first fifteen minutes are pretty enjoyable, the following hour drags on like molasses, with a complete lack of any action. That dreadful hour is further drawn-out by nauseatingly trite dialogue, obvious “surprises” and bland scripting. But, forty-five minutes before the end, Ethan Hunt finally gets to act like the James-Bond clone he has so obviously become, and only then does Mission: Impossible 2 become a thrill ride. That’s when characters stop speaking and start shooting, all sumptuously directed by John Woo. Slow-Motion bullet ballet, a wonderful motorcycle chase worth the price of admission in itself and a superb hand-combat sequence complete the film. A shame you have to slog through so much… emptiness in order to get to it. Tom Cruise is irreproachable -as is Anthony Hopkins’ cameo- but the rest of the actors get short thrift and Thandie Newton’s character is atrociously written. So much good stuff, so much bad stuff… and Hollywood suddenly asks itself why we think its summer blockbusters suck.