(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s something … off about this newest edition of The Mummy that exemplifies the worst in modern blockbuster movies. It’s not even worth comparing to the already classic 1999 film that perfectly blended comedy with adventure and introduced us to Rachel Weisz. It’s clunky enough on its own terms. Part of the problem is pitching the film as the first in the “Dark Universe” (nice logo!), an acknowledged copycatting of the MCU that is up to its third attempt to launch a shared universe of movies: We get glimpses of intriguing things, but the film keeps its best shots in reserve in anticipation of something else. Part of the problem is Tom Cruise, increasingly too old and too proud to play the same roles in the same way. Part of the problem is a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and suffers from a dull premise that can’t manage to tie everything together. It’s shorter to list the things that aren’t a problem: Sofia Boutella is (as usual) fantastic and alluring in her role as the villain mummy Ahmanet—sufficiently so, in fact, that she practically becomes the sympathetic protagonist to cheer for. Russell Crowe is enjoyable as Dr. Jekyll—the film can’t figure out what to do with the character, but Crowe’s hulking bulk is used to good effect. The plane crash sequence (as a few other scenes here and there) is well executed. Bits and pieces of the shared universe are admittedly cool—having classic Universal monsters interact and a secret organization to keep track of them isn’t a bad idea, even though The Mummy isn’t the best showcase for such a crossover event. Alas, there is so much boring stuff in the film that it struggles to keep our interest whenever Ahmanet isn’t on-screen—Annabelle Wallis is dull as the nominal heroine, and the various shenanigans regarding Cruise’s character and his relationship to death are really far less interesting than they should have been. And then there’s the ugly side of the script (a plane crash next to THE church required for the next plot point! Sandstorm in London?) and a hero we don’t really care for. Still, this is a big-budget action fantasy film, and there’s enough stuff in here to be worth a forgiving watch. I wouldn’t necessarily mind another Dark Universe film—The Mummy, after all, is better than Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein. But after three false starts, wouldn’t it be time to put the idea to rest?
(Video on Demand, September 2016) Hollywood circa 2016 is not a good place for film such as The Nice Guys. Hollywood demands spectacles, special effects, media tie-ins and easily digestible entertainment—it’s not so fond of R-rated 1970s-set semi-realist crime/comedy hybrids with a snarky tone, expensive lead actors, and unconventional narrative beats. So it’s a bit amazing that The Nice Guys managed to get made and got good reviews … but not so amazing that it did poorly at the box office, making it unlikely that such movies will come back on Hollywood’s radar any time soon. Still, let’s appreciate what we’ve got: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in fine form, forming an unlikely pair of investigators untangling a complex disappearance case against a backdrop of adult movies and industrial corruption. Writer/director Shane Black makes a great follow up to his previous Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, combining wit and narrative polish in the service of an enjoyable crime/comedy mix. It’s not necessarily conventional (by the end of the film, it’s an open question as to whether the two protagonists have actually accomplished anything) but it is enjoyable and off-beat enough. The atmosphere of 1977 is credibly re-created and Black’s typical wit shines through the snappy dialogue, absurd situations and off-beat story choices. The Nice Guys is worth tracking down, if only as a peek at what movies we could have had Hollywood not completely sold out to the megaplex paradigm.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) Oh, what a mess. A problem with urban fantasy is the tendency to just keep stuffing the story with magic without pausing to reflect on whether it all fits together, and Winter’s Tale has a bad case of dumb world-building piled upon nonsensical mythology. There’s something about stars being people and not stars, something about Satan and his demon knights, something about having one miracle to spend in one’s lifetime, something about being amnesiac for a century… or whatever. It barely fits together even as a summary, let alone in the details. I’m told that the novel on which the film is based is far more coherent, so the blame here would go entirely to writer/director Akiva Goldsman, proving here that almost two decades of bad reviews since Batman & Robin can’t entirely be blamed on directors mangling his scripts. Interestingly enough, little of the film’s problems affect the actors in it: Colin Farrell is OK as the lead, while Jessica Brown Findlay is very good as the romantic lead despite being burdened with an awful role. Russell Crowe and Will Smith are curiously enjoyable as the villains of the story, despite (again) not making much sense as such. Jennifer Connelly looks lost in an underwritten role –one of the many issues with Winter’s Tale is that it jumps forward in time, but can’t be bothered to decide whether the circa-2014 story is a third act or an epilogue. (But then again, the film is so bad at math or elementary logic that in 2014, one of the non-magical characters should be 108 years old.) Interminable digressions help make the film feel even longer than it is, while fairly good production values can’t paper over the dumb script. It’s one of the defining characteristics of bad movies that whatever profound sentiment they try to express is met with eye-rolling and accusations of pretentiousness, but by the time Winter’s Tale last few moment try to smother viewers in a gelatinous gloop of unearned sentiment, you too will understand why the film is more laughable than interesting.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2015) When Noah was announced as heralding the return of the biblical epic, I’m not sure anyone quite expected… this. Both faithful to the letter of the Flood and almost crazily unhinged as a fantasy film, Noah is certainly a bold bet by writer/director Darren Aronofsky. He brings old-testament back thanks to a somewhat unique interpretation of angels fallen to Earth, introduces conflict among the Ark, meanders for two minutes in presenting a single-shot take on evolution, supposes a pre-Flood industrial society… it’s ambitious and scattered and impressive and exasperating at once, the film never quite jumping where one expect it to go. Questions of humanity’s survival are bandied about, Russell Crowe goes brilliantly crazy at times, the building (and stuffing) of the Ark is handled in a semi-plausible fashion (given the existence of giant rock-monsters and sleeping potions). As far away from blockbuster film as a reported 150 million dollar budget can allow, Noah is a definitive oddity coming from a major studio and the kind of flawed movie that makes a better impression than more successful, but more restrained ones. It suggests (especially when juxtaposed with 2014’s Exodus) that in adapting classic bible stories it’s best to go as wild as possible. Yet for all of its deviations of reality and borrowings from fantasy epic film, Noah does feel relatively respectful to at least the ideas of the Old Testaments… while delivering a big dose of wonder along the way. Not bad at all, even though you may struggle to explain why, exactly, Noah feels so interesting.
(Video on Demand, November 2013) There’s something both annoying and admirable about the entertainment industry’s insistence at rebooting and shoving down superhero movies down our throats. DC’s maniacal insistence at reviving Superman after the 2006’s disastrous Superman Returns is understandable: Superman is iconic, the superhero film genre is still going strong, and there’s still some goodwill among genre fans for a good Superman film. Man of Steel, fortunately enough, is pretty much as good as it gets from a narrative perspective: Screenwriter David S. Goyer (with some assistance from Christopher Nolan) has managed to find a compelling story to tell about a fairly dull character, and it’s more thematically rich than we could have expected. Man of Steel, in the tradition of Nolan’s Batman films, voluntarily goes gritty: Zack Snyder’s direction favour pseudo-documentary aesthetics, the cinematography is more realistic than glossy, and the final act’s destruction feel more traumatic than purely entertaining. Much of this grittiness feels wrong for those raised on the squeaky-clean Superman character, causing more discomfort than necessary. On the other hand, the result is a film that’s reasonably captivating to watch: Superman has an inner conflict to solve, the action sequences aren’t generic and there’s a real effort to ground Superman to an identifiable reality. Henry Cavill is pretty good in the lead role, while Amy Adams does the most with a somewhat generic character. Michael Shannon brings some unexpected complexity to the antagonist, while both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get small but plum roles as the protagonist’s two fathers. While Man of Steel is (ironically) a bit too down-to-earth to feel like a blockbuster epic made to be re-watched over and over again, it’s a cut above the usual superhero fare: There’s some real pathos here, an origin story built on well-used flashbacks, sense of personal growth for Superman (something rarely seen) and the solid foundation for further entries. Recent superhero movie history has shown that it could have been much worse, and if I’ll happily take a glossy Superman movie over an unpleasantly gritty one, it would be churlish to deny the successes of this version of the character.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) A quick trawl through these reviews will reveal that when it comes to movie musicals, I’m a very forgiving reviewer. I have embraced the musical in its post-Moulin Rouge era and a few disappointments aside, I’m usually fond of the genre. So imagine my surprise when I found myself annoyed, bored and exasperated by Les Misérables, surely one of the most instantly recognizable examples of the genre to come down the Broadway-to-Hollywood route. I groaned when I realized that Les Misérables would not only be wall-to-wall singing, but that nearly every song would sound the same and drag on forever. More than once, I left the living room for errands and came back minutes later to characters expressing the same emotion. For all of its nice cinematography and convicting re-creation of a troubled period in French history, Les Misérables plods on for more than an excruciating two hours and a half, on a musical register than barely varies from one song to the next. Perhaps my powers of concentration are gone; maybe I’m just picky when I should be forgiving. And it’s not as if the actors are slacking, given how many of them do well with parts that exceed their signing range. Seeing Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and a thoroughly unglamorous Helena Bonham Carter voice their miserable condition is interesting as in we-haven’t-seen-this-too-many-times-before, but they can’t make the pace move more quickly, or change the film’s intention to make nearly every line of dialogue sung. (Still, I note that the most memorable performance comes from musical-cast-member Samantha Barks, who makes the most out of a limited role as Éponine) Les Misérables is lavish filmmaking on the highest level –but it’s annoying for idiosyncratic reasons that I can’t fully articulate. Upon reflection, through, it occurs to me that I’m fonder of original-movie-musicals rather than straight-up adaptations of existing Broadway shows. Let’s keep the musicals on Broadway, and use the cinema screen for something that fully exploits cinema as a medium.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Writer/director/actor RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists is a welcome throwback to the historical martial-arts fantasy subgenre, with good performances from people you wouldn’t necessarily expect in that kind of film. While the back-story of RZA’s historical universe is complex, the plot itself becomes a well-assorted series of fights between characters, often with super-natural powers. RZA himself is a bit dull in the honorific title role, but the film’s most remarkable performances come from scene-stealing Russell Crowe (as “Jack Knife”, a hedonistic western knife-fighter) and Lucy Liu (as a bordello madam not to be crossed), alongside such notables as Rick Yune, Cung Le and Byron Mann. It’s all meant in good fun, although the strong gore factor takes away a bit of the enjoyment for viewers who like their fighting action to be a bit cleaner. While The Man with the Iron Fists isn’t all that special in its own subgenre, it’s an endearing attempt as a pastiche, and the American origin of the film doesn’t really betray its indebtedness to an entire genre of Asian cinema. It may best be seen by viewers who, like me, used to like a lot of that stuff and are now looking for some more.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) A corrupt politician. An ex-policeman detective with a dark past. An election. Mega development projects. Allegations of infidelity. Murder. Standard stuff when it comes to municipal political thrillers, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about Broken City is how it simply plays along with familiar tropes, delivering them with some competence but never quite going the extra mile for something more interesting than a straightforward script brought to life with capable actors. Mark Wahlberg is his usual blue-collar protagonist self as said ex-policeman with a dark past, whereas Russell Crowe is deliciously slimy as a mayor without scruples. They’re surrounded by good character actors (Barry Pepper, Jeffrey Wright and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seems to have taken on a lot of smaller roles recently) but all have to contend with a script that goes through the usual motions and sometimes not even doing that (such as with the end-of-relationship subplot). There’s a bit of an interesting character choice at the very end, but otherwise Broken City is the kind of standard fare that you see and soon forget. This isn’t to say that it’s bad –just that it’s without big surprises, and seems content to deliver on basic assumptions. The New York that the characters inhabit may have been more believable at a period piece rather than the somewhat cleaner image the city now has. Still: While Broken City may be unremarkable, it has enough narrative momentum to keep things interesting… which isn’t half-bad when compared to many similar films.
(In theaters, December 2010) One of the keys behind a successful thriller is being absolutely, indisputably, unarguably behind the main character. Moral ambiguity may be fine for dramas, but for straight-ahead thrillers, it’s better to be on-board from the get-go. Alas, it’s one of The Next Three Days’ biggest flaws that it never completely allows the audience to get behind the protagonist as he reinvents himself as a criminal in order to save his wife from a life imprisonment murder sentence. It says far too much about my own views of law-and-order to confess that I spent two-thirds of the film silently disapproving of the hero’s jailbreaking plans. Even at the end, I was actively cheering for the police to bring them in, and for at least one of the so-called heroes to kill themselves. Once you’re at that point in moral allegiances, it’s hard to come back. Part of the problem is also that The Next Three Days leaves far too much time for the audience to ponder morality: At two hours, the film is too long for its own good, and part of the problem is director Paul Haggis’ lack of commitment to thrills: The screenplay can’t decide whether it’s marking time as a ruminative drama or if it’s moving forward as a suspense film, and no amount of clever planning can overcome the lassitude of a film that doesn’t quite know how to get going. Russell Crowe is fine as a schoolteacher who reinvents himself as a mastermind criminal, but Elizabeth Banks isn’t particularly sympathetic as the object of the film’s affection. The result is, even if you can go along with the protagonist’s descent into criminality, a bit of a waste of talent for everyone involved: A pile of contrivances amount to little more than a fairly dull way to spend much of two hours.
(In theatres, May 2010) The chequered development process that led from a script called Nottingham to this stone-faced “historical” take on Robin Hood may explain a lot about the deadened result, but as viewers we can only see what’s on-screen and wonder what went wrong. The first bad idea is the pretence of a “historical” look at a legend: It didn’t work in the dour and grimy King Arthur, and it’s not any more pleasant here. (To compare and contrast, the similarly-themed The Last Legion wasn’t very good either, but it had the good idea of being a lot more fun). This isn’t director Ridley Scott’s first foray in pseudo-realistic historical action, and Robin Hood is just as dirt-dominated as similar sequences in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven: you can practically feel the plague coming just by watching the film. But the realism is just surface deep: By the end of the story, in which Robin Hood saves Maid Marian from unexplainable danger during a D-day like French invasion off the cliffs of Dover and then practically writes the Magna Carta from notes left by his lost-lost father, well, we’ve left realism buried somewhere in the copious dirt. (It won’t take a military strategist to find something suspiciously wrong about an invasion force picking a narrow stretch of beach right in front of impassable cliffs as a landing area.) While Russell Crowe is fine as Robin Hood and Cate Blanchett can do no wrong as Maid Marian, the film too often feels like a school assignment sucking all the fun out of reasonably entertaining source material. After watching this joyless take on Robin Hood, I felt a sudden need to go and re-watch Costner’s now-old-enough-to-be-classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves all over again.