(On Cable TV, October 2017) There’s a regular number of R-rated comedies these days, but it seems to me as if they’re coming off an assembly line. Take a comedian, take a serious actor, throw them in uncomfortable situations, be sure to feature a copious amount of profanity and make sure to wrap everything in feel-good themes about family, friendship and/or romance. No worries if they all end up feeling familiar since there will be another one six weeks later. Why Him? is PG-13 rated despite feeling like an R, but it certainly struggles with déjà vu: in-between seeing Bryan Cranston as a conventional family man visiting his daughter’s nouveau-riche boyfriend played by an unhinged James Franco, the film seems to have been assembled from familiar blocks in order to give audiences exactly what they would be expecting from the poster, the premise and/or the trailer. Jonah Hill can be spotted as producer and writer, which certainly explains a lot about the film’s well-worn comic elements. It’s not that Why Him? is bad (although some individual moments of the film are obnoxious) as much as it’s the same as half a dozen other recent movies. At nearly two hours, there’s a lot of fluff to the result (most notably a final act that just drags on and on), making the movie feel even more generic. While set at Christmas, I would be exceptionally surprised if Why Him? became anything like a holiday classic—heck, even the very similar The Night Before has a stronger shot at that title.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Having both James Franco and Jonah Hill headline a film would suggest a comedy, but True Story is far from being lighthearted and, as such, represents a bit of a departure for two actors who, while having demonstrated some dramatic chops in the past, are usually associated with big laughs. Revolving around a tragic multiple murder, a journalist disgraced by accusations of invention and sociopathic manipulation, True Story feels stark and grim, especially when it starts poking at viewer assumptions. Based on indeed, a true story, the film can be a fascinating case study of two actors circling each other like their characters, never trying to betray the harsh source material through ill-placed comic relief. Its last fifteen minutes feel like an extended nightmare, so twisted do the agendas become. If the film has a flaw, it probably that we don’t quite get to feel the betrayal of the protagonist: True Story doesn’t invest much time in trying to make us believe in the initial lies, making some of the revelations feel flat. Still, it’s a troubling film, and as the hero and the villain eventually stat matching wits, the film does get a bit better toward the end. Both Hill and Franco do fine with dramatic roles, to the point where few will assume that their next film will be a comedy
(On Cable TV, July 2015) Everyone’s got to pay their bills, which is how I explain seeing James Franco, Kate Hudson and the omnipresent Tom Wilkinson in this fairly standard thriller in which money is the root of all problems. Good People gets going when a cash-strapped couple finds a bag of money in their dead tenant’s apartment –such an amount is seldom legal, and before long the true owners of the money come calling back. Stuck between an overly-interested policeman and warring criminal gangs, our sympathetic expatriate couple gets the chance to run, fight and set up traps in a dilapidated house. The building blocks of the story are simple, but executed fairly and the result is the kind of thriller that can be watched without too much involvement. There isn’t much for Franco and Hudson to play with: they’re meant to be a likable couple stuck in a nightmare, and their restrained performance reflects exactly that. It doesn’t help that the film is shot in a dark and blue-tinted mode, rain never being far away even when it’s sunny. Predictable and by-the-numbers, this is a straight-to-video 80-minutes entertainment for those who have seen just about everything else playing. Good People is not bad, although it could have been a lot more fun.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) The Interview is no mere movie. It’s the one that earned the ire of North Korea, (allegedly) got Sony Studios hacked, got pulled from North American chain theatres, became a reference for the President of the United States of America and ended up released digitally as a hail-Mary attempt to recoup some of its production costs, eventually ending up as one of the top-grossing VOD release of all times (so far). What a strange fate for Yet Another Rogen/Franco Stoner Comedy taking vulgar pot-shots at respectable subjects. After Pineapple Express (crime thriller stoner comedy), Your Highness (Epic Fantasy stoner comedy) and This is the End (Post-Rapture stoner comedy), the results are familiar. Silliness meets the sublime as a Very Serious Topic (ie; the assassination of foreign dictators by the US government) is demolished through an endless parade of lurid, stupid, dumb and crude jokes. And yet… The Interview is surprisingly entertaining. The friction between our hapless entertainment-TV host (James Franco, for once playing the goofball compared to Seth Rogen’s more serious news producer) and the important geopolitical assignment he receives is at the root of quite a few laughs, but the good-natured stupidity of the characters (“The tiger is wearing night-vision goggles?!?”) is enough to carry the film. Franco is surprisingly droll (making the most out of his persona’s sexual ambiguity), while Randall Park manages a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of “President Kim” and Diana Bang makes for a spirited regime representative / love interest. The Interview is directed with energy, featuring a terrific soundtrack and an ambitious cinematography for a dumb comedy. It’s not a great movie, what with its occasional lulls, needlessly graphic violence and lowest-common denominator crude humor. But it’s surprisingly funny, and at times provocative in how it mixes low-brow humor with geopolitical issues. The Interview ends with fireworks, and stands on its own as a film that meets its intentions.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) I hate it when an intriguing premise ends up leading to a strictly routine result. While The Purge‘s premise is nonsensical (“Let’s allow all crime for the next 12 hours! That’ll be sure to solve some problems rather than create more!”), it’s different enough to demand attention. Unfortunately, the premise merely leads to a standard home-invasion thriller, as forced as it is dull. I suppose I should be impressed by the way the big premise leads to a single-location low-budget movie with a small cast, but the lack of connection between the vast ambitions and narrative possibilities of The Purge‘s imagined future and the ordinary thriller that it expresses. Big ideas about animalistic urges, fascist states, retribution and repercussions are hardly glanced in a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with what it has at its disposal. Execution-wise, Ethan Hawke is once again wasted in a role that could have suited a multitude of other actors, while writer/director James DeMonaco doesn’t do much better as a director than as a screenwriter: The Purge is filled with sequences that could have been quite a bit better, had there been a bigger budget or a better imagination at hand. Maybe someone will re-make it in a decade or two, and we’ll see a better take on the premise.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Another six months, another Jason Statham movie. Here he is again in the utterly-generically-named Homefront, playing a cop with rough methods, this time with the slight twist that he’s supposed to be retired and living easy somewhere in the Louisiana countryside. It doesn’t work out that way, of course: a bullying incident involving his daughter escalates and brings him to the attention of the local meth lord, who in turn goes and involves an even bigger mob boss with scores to settles. It leads predictably into the kind of mayhem we expect from Statham movies. So what is different from this one? Not much, but Homefront has qualities to appreciate: The Louisiana scenery is nice. Rachelle Lefebvre gets another small but likable role as a sympathetic schoolteacher. Statham is up to his usual standards as a dad trying to protect his daughter from harm. But it’s James Franco who gets the most distinctive role, bringing his usual lack of intensity to a reluctant meth kingpin antagonist. Wynona Rider also gets a small role as a waitress with ambitions. Still, this is another one of Statham’s archetypical roles, and this continuation of his usual screen persona is successful in that it neither challenges nor undermines his position as an action star. The workmanlike direction is good enough without being in any way impressive, which is roughly what’s to expect from Statham vehicles. Homefront doesn’t amount to much of a film, but it’s entertaining enough in its own generic way. Of course, it’s going to be hard to remember it in a few days, let alone after it blurs into a string of so many similar Statham films.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) Now being comfortably in my late thirties, there’s a limit to the amount of amusement I can get from rough frat-boy humor, with its soft-drugs and penile references in-between copious swearing. Still, This is the End knows exactly what kind of laughs it wants to get, and it’s successful at what it does. The focus on the nature of young adult friendships in the face of trying circumstances may not be new (Seth Rogen alone has mined it for the past decade since Superbad) but it adds a little bit more substance to what would otherwise be a juvenile festival of phallic jokes, scatological references and drug humor. This is the End, by its very nature (six actors playing exaggerated version of themselves as the world around them is consumed by a biblical apocalypse) is intensely self-referential, and the corpus of movies and celebrity gossip you have to know before getting the most out of this one is lengthy –it’s best if you have a working knowledge of the live and films of Seth Rogan, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny MacBride, along with a passing familiarity with Michael Cena, Emma Watson, Rihanna and the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Sort of a silly Hollywood home movie writ large, This is the End still manages to get a few laughs and chuckles: Evan Goldberg’s direction is self-assured, there’s a sense that there are no self-imposed limits to the comedy, and the ensemble cast is simply remarkable, both for its presence but also for the lengths at which the performers will go in order to spoof their own screen persona and get their laughs. It also has the decency to end on a very high note, wrapping up a film that compensates for its own worst excesses. The result may not be particularly refined or subtle (although there is at least one laugh-aloud implicit joke when we realize that the heavenly rapture has passed by without claiming a single Hollywood partygoer), but This is the End has the strength of its own immaturity.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) I would really like to dismiss Spring Breakers as just another piece of exploitative trash, badly-shot and hazily written in an attempt to revel in the debauchery of American Spring Break antics. And much of it is exactly that: Written and directed by notorious trash-master Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers does portray, in gritty pseudo-documentary style, the excesses of Spring Break and the depravity of modern teenagers. But only the most obstinate viewers won’t find a few deeper themes and artistic flourishes running throughout the film. The story of four college girls headed to Spring Break and gradually lured into the criminal lifestyle, Spring Breakers does have a few undeniable strengths doing for it. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid noting that despite the rampant and casual nudity of the film, it often resolutely avoids simple exploitation: picking four young women as protagonists with their own agendas partially frees the film from the girls-gone-wild male gaze, and does much to increase the viewer’s uneasiness at the increasingly violent onscreen antics. Spring Breakers is designed to unsettle and play as societal horror, the excesses of the generation heralding an era of unbridled boozed-up nihilism. Scratch a normal college student, seems to suggest Korine, and a crazed criminal will come out, guns blazing. Alarmism at its finest, but the film does manage to become an impressionistic mash-up of ominous flash-forwards, sampled flashbacks and dissonant montages. From the first scene (featuring a pitch-perfect use of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, which makes sense given how Skrillex helped score the film), the film makes viewers bounces between the light and dark sides of hedonism, eventually scoring a crime spree to an acappella rendition of Britney Spears’s “Baby, One More Time” before juxtaposing a shootout with innocent flashback narration. Suffice to say that the usual fans of Vanessa Hugens, Selena Gomez and James Franco may be in for a bit of a shock –Franco, in particular, turns in a distinctive performance as a top-dog gangster. None of it is especially easy to watch, but the effect is more powerful than expected. Audiences with weak constitutions may not make it to the end –even seasoned viewers may be tempted to reach for the fast-forward button once in a while. Suffice to say that it’s a memorable viewing experience, even though its merits may be obscured by a lot of surface flash.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) The story of Linda Lovelace, first-ever porn star thanks to a starring role in the wildly popular Deep Throat, is a classic case of she-said-she-then-said: Lovelace (co-)wrote four autobiographies, and their content varied with time: The first two are very much pro-pornography at a time where she was riding Deep Throat’s popularity, the last two very much against it at a time when she was campaigning against obscenity and free to speak against her abusive then-husband. Lovelace unusually tries to grapple with this complex portrait by presenting Lovelace’s life twice: first as a success story, and then as the darker, more abusive version of it. It may not completely work (the scenes become sketches rather than flow harmoniously from one another, and the simplification of Linda-the-victim is unfortunate given the complexity of her life after porn and after being used by feminist activism), but it’s an interesting attempt that brings an unusual twist to the usual bio-drama genre. What is undeniable, though, is Amanda Seyfried’s performance in what may be the first truly adult role she’s played so far –far away from the post-teenage ingénues that fill her filmography. As for the rest of the film, well, it convincingly re-creates the seventies, features a darkly amusing cameo by James Franco as Hugh Hefner and has a nearly-unrecognizable Sharon Stone in a maternal role (!) alongside a gruff Robert Patrick. Lovelace may not be the complete story of Linda Boreman, but it goes further than could have been expected in presenting both sides of it.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) Stop the presses: It’s May, but I have already found my worst movie of 2013. And probably 2012 as well, given how bad it truly is. Oh, sure, there’s still months to go in the year… but I can’t imagine any other film approaching The Letter in sheer pointlessness, exasperation, and uninteresting actors. Here, Winona Ryder stars as a playwright slowly losing her mind while developing her newest play. Her anxieties about her lover, the actors working with her and her own talent are all reflected in the increasingly paranoid pages she gives to the actors. To be fair, there’s a kernel of interest in this premise, and the potential through which it could be developed. But hailing from the worst and most pretentious of the art-house film universe, The Letter strikingly fails to exploit any of the strengths at its disposal: Director Jay Anania doesn’t know what to do with a camera, the choppy editing makes the film near-incomprehensible at times, and none of the actors save for James Franco seem to know what they’re doing. (The film’s lone laugh belongs to Franco, and it feels like an ad-libbed line.) The plot make sense if you think about it long enough, but chances are that most viewers will never make it far enough in the film before turning it off. It’s that bad. I’ll gladly see dumb Hollywood crap over this kind of dull and pretentious trash. Bring on terrible SyFy made-for-TV catastrophe films: My expectations for what is a bad film have been recalibrated. [January 2014: I still stand behind my assessment: The Letter is the worst of the 184 movies I’ve seen in 2013.]
(In theaters, August 2011) Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much from Rise of the Planet of the Apes: I have no particular affinity for apes, would have left the Planet of the Apes series left for dead, and wasn’t overly impressed by the film’s trailer. But there’s no substitute for watching the movie, and the story’s slow, emotional build is ill-suited to be presented in a two-minute trailer. The best way to appreciate Rise of the Planet of the Apes is to ignore that it’s meant to be part of a larger story –not only will you avoid knowing the end of the story in advance, but you will also appreciate the somewhat more dramatically ambitious aims of this new film. There’s an easy answer to anyone wondering why the film needed to exist: the advances in computer graphics have enabled some amazing acting to be captured digitally and re-rendered as completely convincing simian creatures. No more men-in-suits: The newly-intelligent apes of this film are not only undistinguishable from the real thing, but have impeccably-controlled dramatic performances. Andy Serkis, in the lead performance as “Caesar”, steals the show from a sympathetic James Franco. Quite a number of sequences are not only wordless, but take place entirely between computer-generated creatures. The fact that most people won’t notice either particularity is testament to Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ success. Also worth mentioning is the good use of the San Francisco location, and the way the progressive dramatic build-up engrosses the audience. It’s hardly a perfect film (the end climax on the Golden Gate bridge seems almost too implausibly contrived to be credible, the theme is a bit too obviously “humans are scum” and the SF elements are conventional enough to appear as quasi-mainstream now) but it’s a great deal better than anyone would have expected ten years after the underwhelming Tim Burton remake. It’s been a while since special effects alone dictated a should-see movie, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes earns that accolade by using the technology to do something emotionally gripping.
(In theaters, April 2011) I was pretty sure I would loathe this film: After all, I really didn’t care for Pineapple Express, and this follow-up seemed to be heading for the same coarse stoner humour. But I had forgotten that I dislike bad self-important heroic fantasy even more than I don’t care for stoner fantasy. So that’s how I end up feeling relatively warm regarding Your Highness, which seems happy stuffing drugs, profanity and coarseness into a bog-standard fantasy premise. It works better than anyone would expect, in no small part because the framework of the film itself works fine, and it features decent set-pieces (a coach pursuit action sequence more than holds its own when stripped of comic elements). Otherwise, we get a deeply reluctant hero, a perverted mage, pervasive swearing, nudity, crudity and far too much gore for what’s supposed to be a light-hearted film. (As with Pineapple Express, there’s a feeling that a film as juvenile as Your Highness doesn’t actually deserve the level of gore that it features.) As a comedy operating at the edge of good taste, You Highness often over steps into material that goes beyond humour and into bad taste, hitting sexism, homophobia, immaturity and lameness along the way. Danny McBride bears the brunt of the film’s humour as the foul-mouthed cowardly protagonist while James Franco is fine as the always-smiling hero, whereas neither Natalie Portman nor Zooey Deschanel embarrass themselves through their performance –although, mind you, Portman is playing the straight-woman, while Deschanel doesn’t have much to do except being the classic damsel-in-distress. Otherwise, it’s not much of a film for the ages (I suspect that seeing it at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse helped a bit in assessing the film above its true value), but it’s certainly an interesting oddity in the movie landscape: Given the cost of fantasy films in general and their inconsistent level of commercial success, it’s almost mind-boggling that anyone took enough chances on the concept to see the film through to completion. I suspect that Your Highness will appeal mainly to those who can’t take another ponderous high-fantasy film. It’s not much as itself, but as an antidote to worse films, it’s almost refreshing.
(In theaters, December 2010) I wasn’t really looking forward to the experience of watching 127 Hours. Survival films strike an implicit deal with viewers in that they’re going to spend much of the film’s length feeling acutely uncomfortable, and this one doesn’t soften the experience of spending five days with a poor guy with a hand stuck between a rock and a crevice wall. Since there’s only one slightly softer component in that mix, you can guess what’s coming… and steel yourself for it. Director Danny Boyle’s films have been hit or miss as far as I’m concerned, but his impressionistic direction style here works well at presenting the protagonist’s experiences and keeping the film interesting even as it’s stuck in one location. If 127 Hours does something very well, it’s to put us inside the protagonist’s every solitary experiences from the irresistible appeal of the outdoors to tasting the last of his water reserves: Indeed, when That Scene comes up, it’s easy to end up seeing stars alongside the hero. James Franco is exceptional as a self-reliant man slowly discovering the limits of insularity: The film depends on him, and his performance is one of the few this year capable of rivalling Ryan Reynolds’ similar turn in Buried. But 127 Hours is not a downer thriller, and so viewers emerge from the experience thoroughly uplifted. Despite the fact that the film stays in one location for about two-third of its length and often resorts to oneiric flights of fancy, it still feels taut, tight and unsentimental. It’s a minor achievement in filmmaking, and it will win over even the sceptics.