(On Cable TV, February 2016) The current crop of fantasy films seems hell-bent on proving that even wall-to-wall special effects can’t ensure a film that will be remembered once the end credits roll. I’ve had issues in the past with trying to write reviews of dull fantasy movies weeks after seeing the movie, but with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, I’m not taking any chances: I’m writing this the lunchtime after, because the longer I wait the less I’m going to remember any of it. It’s dull enough that I even have problems the day after. Once again, the fairy-tale inspiration has been squished through the Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting machine to produce extruded product clearly more inspired by past movies than by any kind of personal statement. This wholly unnecessary sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman completely evacuates Snow White (other than a few bogeyman-like references) to focus on the Huntsman as he’s thrown into another adventure involving the Evil Queen’s sister. Or something like that. As I said; it’s not a good movie, and it can’t even manage to be a memorable one. I think it’s slightly better than the original, but that’s by the sole virtue of not having Kirsten Stewart anywhere near the screen. Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth are back and they’re generally tolerable. Emily Blunt is (hilariously enough) being asked to play the more-evil-than-evil sister and the result is as unconvincing as it is disappointing. More hilariously, Jessica Chastain shows up in a skintight black leather suite to play an elite medieval assassin and that ends up being the most visually spectacular aspect of a film crammed with computer effects from beginning to end. While director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan tries his best to keep the film propped up, he can’t do much with the incoherent script that stumbles from a prequel to the sequel to the first film and never quite figures out whether it wants to be a follow-up, a Snow-Queen influenced sideshow or its own thing about love and other meaningless blather. It’s profoundly uninteresting despite the occasionally good visuals and it pretty much autodestructs upon viewing. It’s films like The Huntsman: Winter’s War that not give the fantasy genre a bad name—how about we drop the special effects and get back to an actual sense of wonder instead?
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) Anyone looking for a dark thriller should be pleased by The Girl on the Train, but I don’t think anyone will remember it six months later. The story of a damaged woman who is revealed to be embroiled in a complex web of obsession, abuse and guilt, this thriller has so much fun raising all sorts of false leads and dark portents that by the time the conclusion comes, it’s almost a linear let-down. Still, Emily Blunt brings a studied vulnerability to the lead character, and the film doesn’t settle for any easy hero/villain classification when even the protagonist suspects herself of being a murderer. Events get impressively twisted in the second half, with the gloomy cinematography not helping lift the sombre veil hovering over the film. Unfortunately, the pile-up of memory games and criss-crossed relationship eventually blurs into a gray fog—much like the blacked-out drunk heroine, it’s a challenge to explain the plot even a few days after seeing the film. For that reason, I expect that The Girl on the Train won’t have much of a long shelf life other than being an adequate watch-and-forget thriller. It could have been worse but, on the other hand, there’s no use trying to compare this with Gone Girl or other better thrillers of late.
(On DVD, October 2016) I don’t necessarily watch films based on casting, but Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are enough to make anyone interested in Sunshine Cleaning. The premise itself does have a bit of a kick to it, as two down-on-their-luck sisters decide to go in business as crime scene cleanup specialists. Alas, casting and premise probably oversell the true nature of the film, an unglamorous and grounded (bordering on depressing) drama about dysfunctional people trying to keep it together. Don’t expect laughs by the barrel, don’t expect Adams or Blunt to vamp it up and don’t expect a triumphant ending. Albuquerque shows up without artifice, the story generally takes place in working-class settings in-between strip malls and noisy family restaurants. While this down-to-earthiness may disappoint a number of potential fans, Sunshine Cleaning does achieve most of the marks it sets for itself as a sentimental drama. Adams and Blunt get to stretch acting skills that often get forgotten in their broader movies, and Arkin is a delight even if his role doesn’t stray from his post Little Miss Sunshine persona. It may not amount to the glossy blockbuster comedy that the film could have become with a few tweaks, but Sunshine Cleaning works and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) As far as hard unflinching thrillers go, Sicario is a cut above the average. Featuring a merciless look at the increasingly uncivilized war between governments and drug dealers on both sides of the US-Mexico border, this film takes viewers into darkness and doesn’t allow for much light at the end. Our gateway character is a competent police officer drawn into a murky universe in which answers aren’t forthcoming and may be harmful to the soul. Director Denis Villeneuve once again manages a spectacular-looking film: with the help of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario revels in the bleak gorgeousness of the desert and its menacing twilight. The “bridge sequence” is a terrific thrill ride, while the almost-cryptic lines of dialogue do much to suggest an entire universe beyond the words. Emily Blunt is good in the lead role, but Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin end up stealing the show at times. Heavy in macho rhetoric against which crashes our protagonist, Sicario has the heft of a big thriller, the likes of which aren’t seen too often in today’s studio environment. Still, it’s not quite a perfect film: The morbid reality of its vision can weigh heavily at times, but the script appears half-polished in the way it switches protagonists during its third act, doesn’t quite maximize its own strengths and occasionally seems unfinished. I wanted to like it a bit more than I did by the end. Still, Sicario stand tall as one of the big thrillers of 2015, and should be good enough to make adult-minded viewers happy with their evening choice.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) As a director, Doug Liman’s been hit-and-miss, but Edge of Tomorrow is a definite hit. You could crudely summarize the film as “sci-fi Groundhog Day” (even though it’s adapted from a Japanese Science-Fiction novel) and grind your teeth at the dumb setup in which humans are somehow stuck fighting aliens in a European ground war. But once the mechanics of the time-loop premise are laid out and the complications begin piling up for our protagonist, Edge of Tomorrow gains a strong forward narrative drive. Tom Cruise is pretty good as a back-room officer thrust into bloody combat, especially when he has to relive the same events over and over again until he gets it right. You can dig a bit into the film and come away with strong commentary on video-game playing and the consequences of choice, but it’s just as easy to be swept along by the fast-paced action and dark humor. Emily Blunt has a terrific role as a battle-hardened veteran, and she sells it perfectly. (Although I would have liked an older female actress in the role, just to lower the age difference between her and Cruise) Edge of Tomorrow definitely hits its stride in its middle third as time-loop possibilities are ingeniously exploited, and the film’s editing is taught-tight. It’s a bit unfortunate that the film’s third act seems so flaccid after such high notes: The night-time Paris sequence seem suddenly interminable and visually bleak, although I’m sucker enough for a happy ending that I won’t begrudge the sudden changes in the film’s rules in time for the coda. Edge of Tomorrow is just different and playful enough to distinguish itself from other run-of-the-mill SF action films, although it’s flawed enough to make anyone wish for a few further tweaks. Still: Not bad at all.
(On-demand, October 2012) Most romantic comedies end up when both protagonists are reasonably certain to stay together, but what happens afterwards? The Five-Year Engagement starts with a marriage proposal and then cackles as the protagonists can never completely manage to finalize their wedding plans… for years. Exasperation sets in for the characters, although viewers will be entertained to see Jason Segel (in his usual vulnerable good-guy persona; he co-wrote the script) and Emily Blunt try to figure out the rest of their lives. More sweet than funny, The Five-Year Engagement is stronger on supporting characters and awkward gags than it is at an overarching plot and structure –much of the overlong second act repeats itself, while elements of the third act notably seem too convenient at that stage of the script. What makes the film enjoyable are the performances –not only from the lead actors, but from the colorful supporting cast as well. While the film may not be on solid grounds in some details (if I eat stale doughnuts before they are replaced by new ones, I get twice as many doughnuts, and let’s not kid ourselves: even day-old doughnuts are delicious), it’s a script that has a few unusual things to say about the Happily Ever After part that other movies neglect to explore. (It’s interesting to note that comedy mega-producer Judd Apatow has been mining the less-often-explored aspects of romance for a while, and that the results are usually worth a look.) While The Five-Year Engagement may not be the ultimate or funniest take on the idea of a very long engagement (somehow, you’d expect bigger, clearer and more unpredictable obstacles), there’s enough left on the table to warrant a look.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I could go on and on about this being the epitome of the quirky/funny low-budget British crime comedy if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s a remake of French film Cible Émouvante. Still, Wild Target is short, dark, witty, quite funny and British to the core. Bill Nighy is up to his usual charming standards as a dapper, uptight hit-man contemplating getting away from it all, and he finds a great foil in the beautiful Emily Blunt as a flighty con artist needing protection who comes to change his regimented life. For a film that got nearly no press in North America, this is a very enjoyable surprise: the script is smarter than average, the actors look as if they’re having fun and the film perfectly doses a small amount of violence in this dark but not overly downbeat comedy. The dry humor doesn’t pander too much, and the film manages to remain interesting even when it abandons London (after a hilariously clever “car chase” through the City) for a small country estate. Wild Target‘s production qualities are fine for its low budget, Jonathan Lynn’s direction is generally unobtrusive and the result is worth a look. This is the kind of film that plays a lot better on the small screen as an “eh, might as well watch this one” choice than a big-screen event.