(In French, In Theatres, December 2016) I’m sure that Dinsey Animation Studios aren’t infallible, but their hot post-Bolt streak isn’t ending with Moana, a terrific new entry in their Princess series. Taking on Polynesian mythology as a starting point, Moana follows a standard template that allows for a hero’s journey, vivid characters, picaresque adventures, musical numbers, comedy, empowerment and spectacular visuals. The quality of the animation is easily the best in the business, and the songs are terrific as well. (I’ll acknowledge that “How Far I’ll go” is positioned to be the Oscar-nominated one that everybody loves, but I’ll take the bouncy “You’re Welcome” and “Shiny” over it … in fact, I haven’t stopped listening to both of them in the week since watching the film.) Moana herself is a terrific heroine, self-reliant and sympathetic at once. While I watched the film in French, I could help but recognize two Dwayne Johnson visual tics (The eyebrow and the pec pops) in the character he voices in English. Moana is an effortlessly charming film, and it plays like a future classic Disney movie even on a first viewing. We’ll see in a few months whether it survives a twentieth viewing in the span of two weeks.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) As much as I like Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson as comic performers, there’s something off with Central Intelligence that makes the film feel smaller than their combination would suggest. To its credit, the film does veer off in less simplistic territory than you could expect from the first few minutes: there’s a layer of uncertainty to Johnson’s character that makes the story a bit more self-challenging than expected, even though the ultimate outcome of the various twists is never in doubt. Unfortunately, it’s that same uncertainly that so often prevents the film from snapping fully in focus. Johnson’s character is pushed to such extremes that it’s tough to suspend disbelief that he would exist even in the film’s reality. It doesn’t help that Central Intelligence, in much of the same way as other contemporary action/comedy hybrids, veers back and forth between persona-based improvisation and strictly scripted madcap action scenes. The uneven pacing is an issue, especially when the result runs close to two hours. At least the two lead actors deliver more or less what’s expected of them. Johnson is ready to try anything for a laugh and his charisma helps the film hide some of its more inconsistent problems, but Hart seems a bit held back by the place taken by his co-star and the demands of the production—he’s usually better in more free-flowing films. As for the rest, director Rawson Marshall Thurber keeps things going during the action scenes, perhaps further highlighting the two-speed inconsistency of the film. Still, if you’re in the mood to see Johnson and Hart goof on their respective personas, Central Intelligence will do … although it’s not hard to be disappointed by how much better the film should have been.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) The disaster movie will never die. Indeed, buoyed by advances in special-effects technology, it will rise again and again, more overblown and chaotic than ever before. If you thought that 2012’s earthquake sequences were as good that they were likely to get, prepare to be amazed by San Andreas’s wide-screen mayhem as Los Angeles and then San Francisco gets thoroughly trashed by a number of unimaginably powerful earthquakes. Dwayne Johnson anchors the film as its muscular protagonist, equally able to commandeer a helicopter for personal gain as he is to fly a small plane and provide first-aid. All of which turn out to be helpful when comes the time to go rescue his daughter from the elements. San Andreas is, to put it bluntly, a fairly dumb movie: The laws of physics are ignored, logic is downplayed, characters a mere plot puppets and nothing is as important as the CGI destruction shown on-screen. Even for a blunt disaster movie, it sometimes overplays its hand: Paul Giamatti does his best as the voice of exposition, while Alexandra Daddario is overexposed in centre-frame as a curvaceous object of desire. (I wouldn’t normally complain, except that in this case, there’s something extra-blatant in the way the movie shows her off and her character is supposed to be a teenager. Also, I’m getting old.) On the other hand, San Andreas is a cunning movie: Everything is engineered for the wow-factor, from some spectacular moments in which major California cities are torn apart to showcase sequences in which a character runs (in a single long shot) to escape to a building’s roof while skyscrapers are toppling all around downtown LA. It takes more than a little ingenuity to cram that much spectacle in a single film, and both the screenwriter Carlton Cuse and director Brad Peyton have to be congratulated (if that’s the right word) for delivering a film so committed to the base ideals of a disaster film. While the result may not be respectable, it springs to mind as a demo disc to show off any new home theatre improvement.
(On TV, January 2016) I wasn’t expecting this second G.I. Joe movie to be any good after the entirely dumb 2005 film, but it turns out that G.I. Joe: Retaliation definitely has its share of strong moments. A number of action scenes hold our attention, although the result ends up being limited by the silliness of its original material. Continuing where the first instalment stopped, Retaliation has the halfway-gutsy charm of starting with an impostor playing the role of US president and killing off the lead character of the previous movie within minutes, leaving Dwayne Johnson to lead the rest of the film. A few good sequences, such as the prison visit/breakout (anchored by the instantly compelling Walter Goggins) and a demented cliff-side battle, do much to remind us that we are watching a grander-than-logic action film ready to go all-out on big stunts. Unfortunately, Retaliation suffers from a much duller conclusion, blunting what could have been much more enjoyable throughout. It doesn’t help that for every time we’re shown actual combat equipment or quasi-believable refinements, the film shoots itself again in the foot by reminding us of how silly it is, with juvenile code names (Can anyone call someone else “Snake Eyes” in real life and not break out laughing?) and ridiculous plot developments. G.I. Joe: Retaliation almost tries to be more than an adaptation of a beloved but silly kid’s toy mythology. Alas, it is limited by its origins material, its willingness to please fans and its maddening lack of ambition when comes the time to commit to being more than a dumb action film.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I don’t quite understand this trend of demystifying legends, offering “the real story” behind fantastical tales or sucking all the fun and excitement out of time-proven tales. Hercules hops on this bandwagon (see Robin Hood, Exodus, etc.) by telling audiences about the Hercules behind the legend, presenting a mercenary who’s only too happy to let the legend of his twelve labours get him hired by rich clients. What follows is a historical epic absent of magic, almost bending itself out of shape to deliver epic battles without tipping into the supernatural. It doesn’t always work, as a not-really-zombies sequence shows. Still, the film coasts a long time on Brett Ratner’s unobtrusive direction and Dwayne Johnson’s pure charisma. As often happens, Johnson is fantastic even if the film around him isn’t: playing a mortal-but-extraordinary Hercules is the kind of thing that only Johnson can do in today’s action star pantheon. Otherwise, Hercules seems almost happy to undercut even its own claims to spectacle, and its bare-bones structure is so predictable that it leaves almost nothing to gnaw upon. So it ends up as a serviceable, but hardly memorable historical action film.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Here’s a philosophical question: If you’re bored enough by a film that you slide off in a pleasant slumber by the time the third act rolls, and rouse just before the end credit, and yet feel no need to go back to check what you’ve missed, can you be said to have watched the entire film? What about when your attention is distracted by a second screen? What about when you just go to the bathroom, or grab a bite from the kitchen without pausing? What about when you blink and miss a few frames of the film? At what point does “not watching” become relevant, and when does it turn into a review statement of its own? All of this to say that while I had reasonably high hopes for Empire State, the film quickly degenerated in an implausible snooze-fest. The opening moments of the film set up an intriguing early-eighties slice of life in New York’s Greek community. Then it’s off to a heist caper, but not just any heist caper: one of the least plausible heist capers imaginable, filled with coincidences, laziness and hard-to-accept arbitrariness. Events “just happen” and it’s hard for fiction to let its main character plan such a heist while warning signs about him all abound. After an hour, the verdict is clear: Empire State is dull, tired and with little grace in the way it uses either its historical setting or its actors. Liam Hemsworth isn’t developing as a compelling lead actor and this film does nothing to enhance his distinctiveness as anything more than “Chris Hemsworth’s brother.” Michael Angarano’s more distinctive, but his slimeball character is more annoying than striking. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the box-cover: While Dwayne Johnson is in the film, he’s only in there for a few minutes, and seems to belong in an entirely different film every time he’s on-screen. Little wonder that even with a moderately-high budget, Empire State went direct-to-video ($11 million isn’t much by blockbuster standards, but it’s higher than most film of this kind). There’s little here that make the film special in any fashion.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) It’s interesting to see a performer like Dwayne Johnson slowly move away from straight-up action roles to more nuanced dramatic work. For a so-called action star, his charisma has long been off-the-scale, and his noteworthy performances have always gone beyond simply being a big guy handling big guns (or swords, or cars, or…) So it is that Snitch is a bit of a departure: a character-driven crime drama with a socially-conscious intent and little by way of outright action. Here, Johnson plays the hard-working father of a young man taken to prison after a relatively minor mistake. Forced to go undercover in the drug trade in order to free his son from prison, Johnston’s protagonist is drawn deeper and deeper in the underworld, forced to desperate actions. There’s a bit of social critique of the American judicial system, there’s a bit of family drama, there’s a bit about an honest entrepreneur working for dangerous mobsters, and there’s a final bit of guns-and-trucks action toward the end. For the most part, though, this is a small-scale crime drama with a likable protagonist stuck between two unsympathetic worlds, and how he tries to survive that forced descent in the name of family redemption. Snitch is not a big movie, and that requires the right expectations going into the film. While it’s a decent crime drama that evoke a throwback to past decades, it’s not much of a thriller when measured against the overblown action films with which Johnson has been associated throughout most of his career. Snitch may disappear quickly from public consciousness, but it’s a worthy showcase for Johnson to prove that he can do much more than be a hulking action hero.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) I am unapologetic about my enthusiastic love for this series ever since the first 2001 installment: I’m not much of a car guy, but I love the blend of action, machines, and humor that the series offers. Fast Five was a notable pivot in that it took the series away from strict street-racing action (no more girl-on-girl kissing!) towards globe-trotting heists and adventure, with considerable broadening of the franchise’s appeal. Now Furious Six capitalizes on this shifting dynamic, and takes audiences to Europe in the search for bigger and better action scenes. The highlight is a highway sequence that pits muscle cars against a tank, leading to a climax set on a massive cargo plane rolling down a seemingly endless runway. With “vehicular warfare” (oh yeah), we are far from the Los Angeles street-racing origins of the series and yet not that far, given how the series has adopted “family” as an overarching theme and eventually manages to bring back everything to the humble neighborhood where it all began. Fast and Furious 6 successfully juggles a fairly large ensemble cast, while giving a big-enough spotlight to series superstars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, with able supporting turns by Dwayne Johnson and a spot for newly-resurrected Michelle Rodriguez. The script is more blunt than subtle (the ham-fisted dialogues really bring nothing new to the film) and the direction could be a bit less tightly focused so to let the action scenes breathe, but for existing fans of the series, this is nothing except another successful entry. There are even a few jokes thrown in: The street-racing sequence is introduced by Crystal Method’s circa-2001 “Roll it Up”, while Johnson not only gets at least two jokes referencing his wrestling background (mentioning “The Walls of Jericho” and a final tag-team fighting move with Vin Diesel) but also a few Avengers shout-outs in-between “working for Hulk”, “Captain America” and “Samoan Thor”. By the post-credit end, the film not only straightens out the series timeline to include Tokyo Drift, but introduce a wonderful bit of casting in time for the next installment. It’s going to be a bit of a wait until the next film…
(Video on-demand, September 2013) Anyone with an interest in director Michael Bay’s career was eagerly anticipating this film: While Bay usually works with stratospheric budgets, wall-to-wall explosions, wild chases and omnipresent special effects, how would he deliver a low-budgets crime drama? Fortunately, the result turns out to be interesting: Filmed with a relatively-paltry 22$M, Pain & Gain is a high-energy, low-morals crime thriller that harkens back to Bay’s Bad Boys films more than anything else. Set in Miami, the film ends up playing like of those Florida-noir comedy-crime novels, with stupid criminals, reprehensible victims, duped collaborators and misguided law-enforcement officials. Everyone is a bit crazy in Miami, and as our idiotic bodybuilding antiheroes get seduced into a life of crime, the plot gets loopier and loopier. Mark Wahlberg is effective as a hustler (over-)taken by a self-improvement mindset; meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson is also remarkable as a self-destructive ex-con periodically restrained by his faith. The film, however, really belongs to Bay, as he uses his usual glossy rapid-fire style to enliven an already-colorful story. Pain & Gain moves quickly, seldom bores (although it occasionally disgusts) and is frequently hilarious as well. There’s even a critique of the “American Dream” rhetoric if you look closely enough, which may be the deepest intellectual content in a Michael Bay film so far. It won’t take much to make viewers regret the fiercely amoral thrust of the story (Bay is more likely to celebrate excess than to reign in good taste, and the gory excesses of Pain & Gain are similar to those in Bad Boys II), something that may weaken the film’s crazy-Florida-noir appeal. While based on a true story, Pain & Gain takes a lot of liberties with the material… so don’t trust everything you see on-screen. Heck, Bay even gets to throw in a car chase and an explosion. The film is a bit long, which becomes a bit of a problem with Bay’s in-your face brashness: the second half isn’t quite as much fun as the first. Still, the result is interesting, making anyone welcome Bay’s efforts whenever he gets a break from his mega-budgeted special-effects epics.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) One of the most damaging assumptions in film reviewing is the idea that kids’ movies are allowed to be dumber than films aimed at adults. Never mind the long list of great kids’ movies that can be used as counter-arguments: the “dumb is OK for kids” mentality encourages an acceptance of bad screenwriting that should not be allowed to go unchecked. So it is that much of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island stands amongst the shoddiest, most poorly-justified pieces of screenwriting I have seen recently. It doesn’t matter if the original film didn’t cry out for a sequel: this one stands alone and should have been put down until a better script came along. Parts of it are as insulting to common sense as to defy explanation. Could I ever manage to convey the inanity of the “three maps” superposition? The bees segment? The submarine thing? The list of gross offenses against elementary logic grows long, but not as long as the unconvincing character dynamics and dumb dialogue. But here’s the thing: Even if Journey 2 makes little sense from a narrative perspective, it’s pretty good in bits and pieces, as the special effects, set-pieces, charismatic actors and sense of adventure occasionally manage to paper over the dumb parts of the script. Dwayne Johnson is preposterously charismatic as a lead: the “pecs pop” sequence would have been intolerable with any other actor, but he manages to anchor the film into a grander-than-life reality. Josh Hutcherson (returning from the previous film) is a dud as a protagonist, but Luis Guzmán is amusing enough as the comic relief, Vanessa Hudgens is cute as the love interest and Michael Caine doesn’t embarrass himself too much despite the sub-par material given to him. Fortunately, the special effects are there to take the slack and provide some interest in-between the preposterous writing. Still, a few pretty sequences aren’t much to compensate for a dangerously stupid script. The usual “kids’ movies are dumb” argument usually ends with a variation on “it’s fine for kids, but adults may want to do something else”. Well, never mind that: adults should be able to watch films with their kids. If even you find yourself bored or insulted by Journey 2, stop watching it immediately, and watch something better instead.
(In theaters, April 2011) My unexplainable love for The Fast and the Furious series suddenly gets a lot more explainable with this surprising fifth segment: Reaching well beyond the street-racing antics of the previous volumes and deeper into the criminal action/thriller mode, Fast Five manages to satisfyingly weave together plot threads and a dozen characters from the four previous films, while delivering inventive action sequences. The prologue effectively sets the tone and the film’s lack of regard for physics: thus reassured, we can enjoy the rest of the film, the over-the-top action sequences, the reunion of the series regulars and the colourful Rio de Janeiro locale. This has to be one of the best pure-action movies of the past few years: It’s snappy, it’s competent, it doesn’t take itself seriously and when it clicks, it really works. Vin Diesel growls as well as he can, and he’s joined by Dwayne Johnson for a head-on collision between two of the most credible action heroes of the moment. While the script isn’t perfect (a few lulls; a few nonsensical plot development; little refinement by way of dialogue), it’s pretty good at giving a few moments to everyone in the cast, at setting up the interesting action sequences, and even at winking at the audience: There are a number of inside jokes for series fans here, perhaps the biggest being a cut that skips over the film’s usual street-racing sequence. The cars may not be as nice at the previous films, but the action sequences are quite a bit more striking. I wish, however, that director Justin Lin would open up his action sequences a bit more, lay off the crazy editing and let the long-shots speak for themselves. (Fortunately, he’s already much better now than in the previous two films.) Don’t leave during the credits: there’s a short scene that will please series fans while setting up a promising sixth instalment.
(In theaters, December 2010) Sophistication is overrated in most movies, as so it is that this exploitation revenge film homage is exactly what it purports to be: a straight-ahead action thriller in which a lot of people shoot at each other. Dwayne Johnson headlines the film as an ex-convict whose first and last task out of prison is to kill those who betrayed him and murdered his brother: His perpetually-angry expression and shoulders hunched forward in unstoppable motion are exactly what the film needs in order to earn its title. Faster seldom stops, and yet it manages to juggle a few fascinating characters along the way, including one of the oddest, most sympathetic elite assassin in recent memory. It’s all no-CGI, muscle-cars, big guns, 70s music until the end. The action isn’t especially well-directed, but the film itself races forward relentlessly, and it scores a few great sequences along the way: While Faster can’t aspire to depth, it does something interesting with its theme of revenge, a few seemingly disconnected radio sermons eventually leading to a satisfying climactic sequence that wraps up one of the film’s subplots. Alas, it’s perhaps one of the only threads effectively wrapped up in a messy climax that doesn’t quite know how to deal with its tangled-up ball of intrigue: While Faster doesn’t leave us hanging, it doesn’t conclude as well as it could, and the result isn’t as satisfying as it could have been. This is a shame, because otherwise Faster is a highly satisfying revenge film that doesn’t try to pass itself as anything higher or lower. It’s a perfect antidote for the Oscar-baiting films currently tripping over each other in a bid for dramatic meaning.
(In theaters, August 2010) I don’t usually enjoy Will Ferrell’s brand of semi-retarded adolescent-grown-old comedy, so my expectations going into The Other Guys were as low as they could be. That explains my surprise at this generally successful buddy-movie cop comedy. Of course, everything will look great after the disaster that was Cop Out earlier in 2010; still, The Other Guys has a lot of fun cataloguing, tweaking and subverting an entire list of action movie clichés. It starts with a treat of a cameo, as Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson play bigger-than-life parodies of the action-movie cops we’re used to see on-screen. Then it’s back to “the other guys” who fill the paperwork and do the actual investigation that goes on behind the usual action sequences: Will Ferrell as a nebbish cop with a wild past and normally-staid Mark Wahlberg as a competent policeman held back by a mistake. The film comes with half a dozen of respectable action sequences, and a steady stream of hilarious moments. Of course, it doesn’t always work: The danger is subverting conventions that exist given their storytelling power is that the subversion often robs the film of its story. At times, The Other Guys is too scattered and less satisfying than it should have been. Another problem is that the material is so broad that it’s often uncontrolled: a number of scenes run too long and feel too dramatic in the middle of so much silliness. (The credits, for instance, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Michael Moore film.) Those tonal problems can be annoying: While the film generally takes place in a recognizable reality, it also occasionally slips up and spends a few moments in a far more fantastical Simpsonesque universe, and the shifts between both tones only reminds us of realism’s dullness. But the advantages of such a scatter-shot approach are that sooner or later, another good moment will come along to make everyone forget about the latest dull sequence. A number of eccentric characters all get their moment in the spotlight (few more so than Michael Keaton’s father-figure captain or Eva Mendes as a supposedly-plain wife), much as a few standout sequences really pop, such as a bullet-time sequence of wild debauchery tableaux, continued abuse of the protagonist’s poor Prius and a purely indulgent slow-motion boardroom shootout. The Other Guys isn’t focused and runs out of laughs toward the end, but bits of it are clever and its overall impact is surprisingly charming.