(On Cable TV, January 2018) I’m not much of a dog person, so films such as A Dog’s Purpose start at a disadvantage with a proposition that takes dog mythology as granted. Here, we go a few steps beyond “a dog’s life-long loyalty” to a big reincarnation what-if, as dog’s soul is reborn in several bodies before reuniting with his original owner. It’s about as over-the-top as you can imagine, with expected tearful pyrotechnics toward the end. Much of the drama is counterbalanced by a more light-hearted development in which our naïve canine narrator comments upon the strange habits of humans from his particular perspective. A Dog’s Purpose is, needless to say, precisely engineered to tug at the hearts of dog owners, leaving the rest of us wondering what the fuss is about. (It really doesn’t help that the film’s release was preceded by misleading accusations of animal mistreatment, meaning that the people most likely to condemn the abuse were the people who were the film’s target audience.) This being said, as a cat person, does the film work? It sort of does, in small doses. The clash between the dramatic arc and the comic moments is an issue, as is the grating deification of its canine protagonist—but once all is said and done, it’s a film that runs on autopilot once the premise is made clear. It doesn’t really use its premise for anything much deeper than a (human) romantic comedy and there’s a lost opportunity there to bemoan, although coming back to the target audience of the film suggests that anything more ambitious would have been missing the point. At least Dennis Quaid turns in the kind of warm and sympathetic performance he’s best suited for. Let me put it otherwise: A Dog’s Purpose wasn’t for me, almost squanders its biggest assets and yet I don’t quite think it wasted my time. It may be the faintest possible compliment, but at least that’s that.
(On DVD, May 2017) It’s either a good or a bad thing that I got to see Tombstone a week before Wyatt Earp. A good thing, in that Tombstone suggests a better way to develop the same material as the dour, overlong and self-important Wyatt Earp. Although, to be fair, seeing Kevin Costner at the top of the cast would suggest something as dour, overlong and self-important as nearly all of his other movies. Rather than focusing on a specific slice of time in Earp’s life, this movie chooses a far more inclusive approach, beginning with childhood experiences and going all the way to an Alaskan cruise epilogue. In doing so, it may present a more faceted portrait of the character, but it can’t be bothered to provide excitement or even enough entertainment over the course of a rather long three hours and change. Costner himself is stoic, impassible, heroic without being engaging. (On the other hand, Dennis Quaid is compelling as Doc Holliday) The film plays without being interesting, and even the Tombstone-set segment suffers in comparison to Tombstone’s more dramatic approach. There’s no scenery chomping here, and that’s too bad, because even as Wyatt Earp does touch upon the nature of myth-making late in the film, there’s a sense that it, itself, has not pushed that aspect more. Years later, Tombstone has decisively won the comparison with its near-contemporary: it’s remembered more frequently and fondly. Even if the only thing people remember from Tombstone is Kurt Russell’s over-the-top “Hell is coming with me!”, then that’s one more thing than people will remember from Wyatt Earp.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2017) If the original Jaws was at the top of good movies and Jaws 2 is at the bottom of good movies, then Jaws 3-D is at the top of bad movies (and I’m told that Jaws: The Revenge lies at the bottom of bad movies.) It dull, gimmicky, familiar, forgettable and not terribly interesting. Whatever interest the basic theme-park premise might have held in 1983 (and I suspect that even then, people made comparison to Westworld) is completely gone now that other movies (Piranha 3D and 3DD, cough-cough) have more or less recycled the premise. We know what’s in store: big shark, multiple deaths and a plucky hero saving the day (this time with a grenade). The addition of 3D elements (since Jaws 3-D came out in the middle of the early-1980s 3D revival) is often ridiculous seen on a flat screen, clearly showing the technical and artistic limits of the approach at the time. It’s sort of fun to see a young Dennis Quaid thrown in the mess, but that doesn’t really make the film any better. Se it if you must, but you may not remember it the day after—there’s not much of interest here.
(On TV, December 2016) I wasn’t looking forward to In Good Company. The premise itself seems made for maximum cringing potential, as a veteran executive in the midst of a downsizing effort is bossed around by a twentysomething careerist who also starts dating his college-aged daughter. It would be reasonable to expect a film maximizing the misery of its lead protagonist. But writer/director Paul Weitz has something more nuanced than a simple humiliation comedy on its mind—in contrasting two different men, the film develops a mentor/mentee relationship, doesn’t make things easy or simple for the wunderkind and gives plenty of redemption moments for the older man. In Good Company isn’t mean or cruel, but gentle and heartfelt, and couldn’t rely on a better anchor than Dennis Quaid (in his lived-in mature persona) to carry the film. Topher Grace isn’t as annoying as expected as the younger man, while Scarlett Johansson is remarkable as the daughter/girlfriend. It’s not much of a film and yet exactly what it wants to be—there’s a limit to how much audiences will like it, but I’d be surprised if it got bad reviews for anything but being a fairly straightforward dramedy. As for me, I had a relatively good time and found In Good Company rather pleasant. Small compliments, but I have the feeling that this is what this low-key film was going for.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) I’m favourably pre-disposed toward films about writing and writers, but even with this added sympathy, there are many ways in which The Words doesn’t quite work as well as it could. The interweaving of stories in which a successful author tells us about a young writer hearing about another young author’s life is intriguing, but the conclusion seems to spring forward at about thirty second’s notice, with a scarcity of details at the upper level. The sudden appearance of the end “directed by” card is a disappointment, as so much of the story seems unfinished. More holes emerge the longer one thinks about the film. I also had a few problems with the putative protagonist of the film, ably played by Bradley Cooper: What kind of idiot calling himself a writer works exclusively for years on a single literary manuscript in New York City? Who is incurious enough not to investigate a literate manuscript from post-War France when so many great writers lived there at the time? Why even call yourself a “writer” when there’s so little hesitation in plagiarizing so thoroughly? Even allowing The Words those premises as given (and adding the improbability of a manuscript remaining undiscovered for decades) and appreciating the careful way in which the film is constructed doesn’t necessarily make the film a success considering its cast. Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde’s characters remain half-developed mysteries, unbalancing the film’s core of interest to its first fictional level. Despite the deliberate ambiguity at the very end of the film, The Words seems half-finished, a decent film petering out in a wet whisper of a conclusion. Despite wanting to like the film and everyone involved in it, it ends up being a bit of a dud. A well-made, respectable, often-likable dud, but a dud nonetheless.
(In theatres, January 2010) The second religious-themed action/fantasy thriller in as many weeks in North American theatres, Legion has the elementary decency not to be terribly serious about its usage of Christian mythology. God has decided to wipe out mankind, angels are out to zombify humanity and only one renegade can save the world by protecting the mother of an unborn child. No, it doesn’t make any sense: Legion’s screenwriters would rather spend five interminable minutes setting up character relationships between cannon fodder than actually making sense. But some of the character time is worthwhile: For a cheap B-grade horror film that blends zombies with angels and demons, it’s unusually generous with the patter, and that almost makes it better than average. It’s a good thing that all of God’s forces are well-mannered enough to line up zombie-style for maximum usage of conventional firepower by our small band of survivors, and that we’re never asked to think too much. Which is sad, really, because in-between the tattered script and the conventional execution, there are glimmers of a terrific concept, character set-pieces and several cool scenes. (Paul Bettany is better than expected as a renegade angel, while Dennis Quaid provides a dependably gruff presence as the owner of the small lonely diner where everything happens.) But the banal dialogue, indifferent scenes and dumb mistakes keep ruining the fun: For such a self-aware, borderline-camp film, Legion never fully realizes its potential. What remains isn’t much more than the type of genre picture that sinks to the bottom of the remaindered bin, and becomes an unfair trivia question within years of its release.
(In theatres, September 2009) I had been looking forward to this B-grade horror/SF hybrid for generally nostalgic reasons: There hasn’t been any spaceship-monster-movie in a while, and I was starting to miss even dreck like Supernova. But if Pandorum isn’t much more than a B-grade horror/SF hybrid, it’s at least a bit more ambitious than the usual “latex bug kills everyone” scenario: Subplots add up nicely until there are about half a dozen separate dangers threatening our protagonists, and while the conclusion is so stupid it burns, it does try something a bit more interesting than blowing the creature outside the airlock. Sadly, getting there is more tedious than fun entertaining: Pandorum has an inordinate fondness for black-on-black color tones, and the pacing dwells far too long on the same pieces of soundstage locations. There’s little connecting tissue between the film’s episodes, and that tissue disappears almost entirely during the lame shaky-cam action sequences that lift almost everything from 28 Days Later: Events in some scenes can only be figured out until they end, if at all. No, this isn’t a minor space horror classic like Event Horizon, although the film has a few nice moments and both Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster both do well in their respective roles. Pandorum does manage to fill its B-movie niche quite nicely, and has a few more ideas than the typical almost-straight-to-DVD feature. Could have been worse, and it will do until the next spaceship monster movie.
(In theatres, August 2009): Nobody expected much from a summer action movie adapted from toys and directed by Stephen Sommers. Still, is it too precious to ask for an entertaining experience from start to finish? G.I.Joe is occasionally fun and amusing: Elements of the first act dare to include over-the-top outrageousness (including a mysterious force relying on government-grade high technology) while the middle-act Paris sequence is an extended rollercoaster of an action sequence. For guys, it’s hard to be left indifferent by a bespectacled Sienna Miller as sexy-evil Baroness, or (to a lesser extent) Rachel Nichols as Scarlett. Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid is obviously having fun chomping on General Hawk’s cigars, and there’s at least one crazy/cool shot of an elevator ride through the G.I.Joes’ HQ. But even those simple pleasures fade fast when the film seems obsessed to sabotage its own assets: The action highlight of the film takes place in Paris, but even that sequence fails to fully engage with the audience when it runs at a continuous high speed with concordant CGI overload. The entire third act, despite enough CGI to cost twice the price-tag of two District 9 put together, is dull enough to put anyone to sleep, with only its own dumbness (“They’ve blown up the iceberg! It will sink to the bottom of the ocean!”) to provide comic relief. Worse; the Baroness character loses a lot of interest when she’s revealed to be brainwashed and, as such, really a good girl. Boring. The movie as a whole is classic Sommers, but the latter-day incoherent Sommers from Van Helsing rather than the genre-savvy Sommers from The Mummy. Enjoy the ride, but don’t be surprised if you end up asking when it will finally end.