(On Cable TV, November 2017) While we cinephiles are all here talking about the death of original middle-budget movies (i.e.: non-sequels, non-comic book, non-franchise, non-superhero stuff), there are movies like Sleepless to remind us that even those movies can be underwhelming. It’s not that Sleepless is bad—it’s that it shows things that countless other crime thrillers have done better. Crooked cops, undercover heroes, internal affairs, large drug deals, threatened family members … and so on. Even set against the glitz of Las Vegas and with the combined appeal of Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan and Gabriel Union, Sleepless can’t really rouse itself out of complacency. It does get slightly better toward the end by resorting to semi-insane action movie tricks such as a car chase in a casino and a rather impressive car flip executed with ramping frame rates and a moving camera (no, seriously, it’s quite good and you even see it again later during the credits if you’ve missed it) but the vast majority of the film is as bland as it comes. Average dialogue, expected plot developments and middle-of-the-road direction don’t really help, even though Monaghan and Union are expected delights in their roles, and Foxx doesn’t do too badly either. Ultimately, Sleepless is the kind of crime thriller that works well enough as an evening’s distraction, but soon fades away as nothing more than an average genre title.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Will Gluck earned a spot on my list of interesting directors after Easy A and a good chunk of Friends with Benefits: He seems at ease with fast-paced films about young characters but doesn’t necessarily talk down to his audience. Annie isn’t in the same league as Easy A, but it’s a competent kid’s film with an appealing heroine a good narrative rhythm. Given that much of it is a straight-up musical, that’s no small achievement. The story, now decades old, should be familiar: An orphan is temporarily adopted by a billionaire, who then discovers the true meaning of affection and—aw, who cares: We’re here for “It’s the hard-knock life” and “Tomorrow”. Quvenzhané Wallis turns in a very good performance as the titular Annie –quietening those who may have thought that her breakthrough role in Beasts of the Southern Wild was a feral one-shot fluke, she sings, dances and makes for a perfectly likable protagonist. Jamie Foxx also does well as a new-economy Daddy Warbucks (he makes cell phones), while Cameron Diaz adds another unsubtle bad-girl role to her repertoire. The music numbers often fizz and pop (although some of them aren’t as energetic, and the last one can be distracting as background detail-spotters can watch the shadows on the fence-posts to figure out how long it took to shoot.), while the comedy bubbles up naturally. Some of the dramatic beats are over-played, but there’s some nice cinematography at play here, especially in presenting a glorious one-percenter fantasy view of New York. I’m not as wedded to previous versions of Annie as some may be, and I have a surprisingly high tolerance for movie characters bursting in song and dance, so your mileage will probably vary.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Director Roland Emmerich is a consummate entertainer, and showing White House Down alongside Olympus Has Fallen, the other great White-House-siege film of 2013, only serves to list why he’s so good at what he does: Good balance between action and humor, clean editing, just-enough character development and a willingness to go insane at appropriate moments… along with self-acknowledgement of outlandish material. The numerous points of comparison between both films only serve to highlight what White House Down does best: Channing Tatum is credible enough as the accidental hero (he’s got confidence without swagger, making him relatable), Jamie Foxx is just fine as a “47th president” clearly modeled after the 44th one, the “threat matrix” idea for the antagonist is ingeniously-executed, the action sequences are vivid without being gory, and the film manages to navigate a tricky line between national symbolism and overblown jingoism. White House Down‘s crowd-pleasing dynamism means that the film as a whole feels like one big competently-executed formula and that’s just fine: the film is easy to watch and enjoy, the only sour note coming late in the conclusion as another wholly-unnecessary antagonist is revealed with a Scooby-Doo-level lack of subtlety. The film is possibly never better than when it acknowledges its own presidential-lawn car chase absurdity with a well-placed “Well, that’s not something you see every day.” –although the “just like in Independence Day” quote comes close. Good turns by numerous supporting players (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins, James Woods and a remarkable Jason Clarke whose character is best imagined as being exactly “that guy” from Zero Dark Thirty) add just enough to make the film even more enjoyable. While White House Down comes with the usual action-blockbuster caveats (formula all the way, and don’t think too much about it), it’s a remarkably successful example of what it tries to do, and it’s hard to give a better recommendation for this kind of film.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Over the past year, I have willingly forgone an almost-exclusive diet of theater films in favour of extensive sampling from premium cable channels, with the pernicious result that I am seeing a far wider variety in the quality of the films I watch. From made-for-TV stinkers to big-budget critical darlings, I now watch everything and my expectations are now lower (ie: more realistic) than they used to be. These personal considerations are prologue to one stone-cold fact: When such a great film as Django Unchained makes its way inside my brain after so many undistinguished movies, the sheer cinephile pleasure of it seems increased. I’ve long admired nearly everything directed by Quentin Tarantino: his love of moviemaking is so infectious that every single film he makes is a treat for jaded movie fans, his script are unlike anyone else’s, his direction makes the familiar feel fresh and the depth of his films is such that you can spend a long time discussing them. As a gleefully revisionist historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained feels like a natural follow-up to Inglourious Basterds: It exploits the strengths of exploitation cinema to deliver a fully satisfying entertainment experience, putting power back in the hands of the oppressed and allowing for a graphic depiction of wrongs being righted. It makes full use of a talented cast in order to provide unique moments of cinema. Jamie Foxx is sheer charisma as Django, while Christoph Waltz completely owns his role. Leonardo diCarpio turns in a rare but effective villainous presence, while Kerry Washington singlehandedly raises the emotional stakes of the film. It takes its time in order to build single-scene suspense of a sort seldom seen in more average films. But the exploitation/entertainment label that is so easily affixed to Django Unchained can mask something far more interesting: in fully showing the viciousness of slavery required for vengeance to be so effective, Django Unchained goes farther than most similarly-themed movies in graphically condemning this ugly chapter of American history. It takes an exploitation film like this one to go where more serious films won’t dare, and this one is gleefully unrepentant in allowing the downtrodden to punish their exploiters. When you combine such crowd-pleasing intentions with top-notch filmmaking skill, the result is irresistible and quickly climbs up year’s-best listings. Django Unchained is, warts and slavery and self-indulgence included, a sumptuous cinematic feast and a splendid piece of entertainment. Don’t dare miss it.
(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs. Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible. It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues. As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time. Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses. Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser. They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own. It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up. While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste. Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.
(In theatres, October 2009) There’s been a curious lack of straight-up thrillers in theatres recently, but it’s not overcooked, under-thought efforts like this one that are going to revive interest in the genre. Nominally the story of a grieving father whose vengeance efforts against a pragmatic DA become excessive, Law Abiding Citizen never manages to convince us of the superiority of the hero against the villain. Gerald Butler’s scary-smart vigilante is so compelling (especially alongside Jamie Foxx’s dull protagonist) that we never completely stop rooting for whatever he’s doing. The ending feels like a defeat at the hands of an undeserving hero, and a particularly dumb one at that: No one in their right mind would take the chances leading to the final detonation. But then again, much of Law Abiding Citizen is preposterous to begin with, what with an omniscient villain, nick-of-time plans, unbelievable contrivances and more Hollywood conveniences than you’d believe. What’s worse, perhaps, is that Kurt Wimmer’s script is not without a few good moments (the “cell phone scene” is a pure shocker; Philadelphia is fine; the ramifications of the villain’s day-job are worth a film in themselves) while Gary F. Gray’s direction makes a generous use of pans, helicopters, smooth transitions and crane-mounted cameras. There’s a sheer anarchistic glee in seeing a city’s judicial system being taken apart for pure vengeance, so you can imagine the disappointment when it all fails to cohere in anything better than an average pot-boiler thriller. This is one of those films where the trailer is quite a bit better than the actual film, and not just because hero and villains are so obviously mismatched.