(Video on Demand, August 2015) What happened with John Cusak for him to show up in so many this-side-of-straight-to-video thrillers, usually as the ambiguously bad guy? I’m not sure, but Reclaim could have been a bit worse without him. The story of two Americans who travel abroad to pick up their newly-adopted daughter, Reclaim soon turns into a nightmare as the young girl disappears and it becomes clear that the two protagonists have been conned out of their money by unscrupulous organized thieves. Things escalate before long, as they try to bring in police to uncover the plot. Rachelle Lefebvre gets a good role as the woman, while Ryan Phillipe continues his recent comeback with a generic but sympathetic role. Elsewhere, Luis Guzman gets to shine as an honest cop trying to help, while John Cusak lets his charm fool us as to whether he’s truly good or bad. Benefitting from some good location vistas in Puerto Rico, Reclaim does have a nice sense of narrative forward rhythm. While the ending gets a bit long and unlikely while some of the evens are predictable, the film is wrapped up nicely enough not to make us resent the time spent watching it. As for Cusak, I don’t know: vacations, unpaid debt, unexplainable fondness for the theme? All I’m saying is that without his name, I wouldn’t have watched the film.
(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.
(On cable TV, January 2012) Safely devoid of surprises, this romantic comedy about a slacker billionaire having to grow up is a vehicle for Russell Brand’s comic personae more than anything else. It’s a risky bet, as the spoiled man-child shtick can quickly grow wearisome and then irritating. Nonetheless, this Arthur remake manages to walk along that line and remain on the side of viewers’ affections: Never mind that Jennifer Gardner is more interesting here as the romantic antagonist than in many of her previous movies: It’s Brand and Helen Mirren as her nanny that steal the show, with occasional assist from Luis Guzman and a gruff Nick Nolte. The plot beats are intensely predictable, which makes the small details of the story seem more important. The dialogues are surprisingly good, with a good understanding of conversation-as-argument and a bigger vocabulary than most romantic comedies. Still, if those strengths do save Arthur from being nothing more than a typically average remake of a much-better film, they don’t do much more to strengthen the film. At best, we end up with a watchable but inconsequential film that will gradually sink in memory even as the 1981 original will endure.
(On DVD, February 2011) There’s been a welcome eclipse for gross-out comedy since the turn of the century, and Waiting is enough to remind us that even a foul-mouthed slacker comedy can dispense with references to genitalia. But since one of the first significant laughs of the film comes from the line “If you want to work here, in this restaurant, I really think that you need to ask yourself one simple question: How do you feel about frontal male nudity?” it’s not as if we haven’t been warned. The nominal plot engine is how a slacker-with-prospects (played by Justin Long) comes to reconsider the time he has spent working at the local “Shenaniganz” chain restaurant outlet. But the ensemble casts brings together a bunch of oddball characters all having their own fun. Ryan Reynolds is the most compelling as a hilariously deviant waiter who’s seen everything: It’s a scum-ball character, but he plays it with a winning smile and the film weeks weaker during its third act when it has to spend time away from him: few other actors could have earned such sympathy with that role. Luis Guzman is another highlight as a restaurant worker obsessed with his own kind of fun and games. Chi McBride, Alanna Ubach and Vanessa Lengies also make an impression in smaller roles, but everyone has their role to play in making sure that this workplace comedy ends up clicking. Never mind the inevitable spitting-in-food scene (whose best laugh comes from the relatively innocuous “We almost had to switch to the ten-second rule.”): there’s more fun to be had in the acerbic repartee between workers and the blank-faced realization that much of the served food in America is handled by people waiting for a better life. The two-disc DVD seems ridiculously loaded with extra features given the triviality of the film itself, but they’re good for a few extra laughs.