(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, March 2016) The small independent Los Angeles-based romantic comedy subgenre is interesting: By virtue of sticking close to Hollywood and going over intensely familiar ground, it can often become a showcase for new directors, established actors trying something different, stylistic experimentation and small-scale enjoyment. So it is with Playing It Cool, a somewhat average romantic comedy set in Los Angeles, starring no less than Chris Evans as his usually likable self, albeit in a far more comic and down-to-earth capacity than many of his starring roles so far. (Other smaller roles are filled by other people you’d recognize.) The film goes for a fair amount of insider meta-jokes by making its protagonist a screenwriter in search of inspiration as he’s trying to write a comedy. But the tone remains light throughout, and director Justin Reardon occasionally indulges in a number of small stylistically interesting touches (such as a “doorway” sequence zipping from one scene to another). Michelle Monaghan is just as likable as the romantic interest, and even though Playing It Cool tries to pretend that’s cooler than its own genre, it’s actually quite mannered in how it reverts to form and delivers exactly what’s expected. While the film does stink a bit too much of the male gaze in the way it approaches its female characters, Playing It Cool does the job as a gently amusing romantic comedy. It’s not meant to be more than a likable goof, and it succeeds modestly at that goal.
(In theaters, April 2011) I wasn’t as fond of Duncan Jones’ Moon as a lot of people were, but I was really interested in seeing his follow-up effort, and Source Code does not disappoint. The theme of the deceived protagonist is still there, the setting is just as constrained and the scientific premises is just as wobbly (not to mention a nonsensical title), but Jones here has a bigger budget, a bigger concept, bigger stars and a faster pace. Ben Ripley’s disaster-movie premise script is ingenious, but it’s paired with other well-paced revelations and the interweaving of both plotlines is effectively achieved. Jake Gyllenhaal is hitting his stride as a heroic protagonist, with good supporting work from Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and a halting Jeffrey Wright. Still, the real star here is writer/director Jones, who delivers a fast, clever and entertaining film with some depth and artful gloss. The ending manages to be elegiac and optimistic at once, and provides a surprising amount of thematic depth for what could have easily been a straight-up genre exercise. We don’t get quite enough SF movies like Source Code, but given the boost it will give to Jones’ career, chances are that we will get a few more.