(Video On-Demand, July 2017) I really wanted to like Life more than I did. After all, while I’m not all that fond of yet another monster-in-space horror/SF movie, the idea of making such a film following the hyper-real example of Gravity (which Life really wants to emulate down to very similar opening tracking shots and South-Asian finale) is intriguing, and so is the cast, leading with the always-sympathetic Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m even open to downbeat finales, provided they make some kind of thematic and plotting sense. But from the first few moments, something is off with Life, and the problems just escalate from there. The issues start with a needlessly obscured “catch the satellite” sequence that barely makes physical sense, but then they get worse as a magical alien life form shows up with no other goal than to kill everyone in increasingly gruesome ways. The impossibly intelligent creature soon makes mincemeat out of the crew, helped along with an absurd succession of dumb character/screenwriting decisions that clearly show that the deck is stacked against a happy ending. The horror sequences are more stomach-churning than entertaining, and the downbeat conclusion depends on a flip of a coin. While it’s kind of daring to kill off your most charismatic character first, and to doom the entire human race by the end, it doesn’t really make for an entertaining movie. Life ends by leaving viewers with the impression of having brushed against something repulsive … which really doesn’t help repeat viewings. For all of the high-tech gloss that makes Life so intriguing, director Daniel Espinosa’s halfway competent execution doesn’t really mask the problems with the script. My tolerance for unhappy endings is growing smaller and smaller every year (and it was never really all that forgiving in the first place), so when an everybody-dies-horribly film like Life comes along, I find it ever easier to dismiss it almost completely.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) The behind-the-scenes context surrounding Deadpool (a passion project for Ryan Reynolds, his occasion to atone for Wolverine and Green Lantern; perhaps his last chance to establish himself as a blockbuster lead megastar; the risky bet of an R-rated superhero movie; the unexpected box-office triumph of the film; the provocative comparisons with Batman vs Superman; and so on…) is almost more interesting than the film itself … which is saying something considering how successful the result on-screen can be. Deadpool arrives at a perfect time in the evolution of superhero movies—a time when the basics have been covered, a time at which superhero fatigue is settling in and experimentation can be rewarded. Hence the success of a satirical (but not parodic) take on the usual superhero origin story, commenting on its predecessors, frequently breaking the fourth wall and delivering far more R-rated violence, sexual content and vulgarity than is the norm in mainstream superhero PG-13-land. Ryan Reynolds finally crackles and shines as the lead character, using charm and humour to enliven a character that could have been unbearable played by someone else. Morena Baccarin more than holds her own as the female lead, playing a more interesting character than usual for this kind of role. Deadpool is all about its irreverence, and it consciously dials down the scale and scope of its story in favour of finely tuned execution. It certainly works, what with structural backflips, taut editing, rapid-fire gags and enough satirical jabs to confound anyone who hasn’t been seeing enough superhero movies. It’s not perfect, almost by design: the profanity-laced humour doesn’t always avoid feeling juvenile, the lightweight story is familiar despite its successful execution and it’s very much a film made for the comic-book crowd. (More general audiences aren’t necessarily excluded, but trying to explain even short jokes like “Stewart or McAvoy?” can take a while.) Still, it’s a fun movie to watch, and it certainly meets the considerable expectations that it had to meet from its core audience. Unfortunately, there will be a sequel … and that one will have to try twice as hard not to become an ugly parody of itself. We’ll see.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) There’s something unintentionally amusing in seeing Ryan Reynolds in Criminal as a man whose personality gets transferred into a new body … given that’s pretty much what happened to his characters in Self/Less, RIPD and The Change-Up as well. There are a few crucial differences, though, and the first being that actor Reynolds is sent home early in Criminal after a short thrilling sequence that concludes with his death. The film’s real lead is Kevin Costner, as an unredeemable psychopath who ends up being an ideal memory transfer subject. Much of the movie is a standard terrorist chase through London, but there are enough wrinkles here to keep anyone interested: In particular, the dramatic tension between Reynolds’s do-good protagonist and Costner’s morally empty anti-hero is surprisingly compelling. There’s an impressive roster of known actors in small roles, from Tommy Lee Jones as a reluctant scientist to Gary Oldman as a CIA manager intent on cracking the case, with Gal Gadot as a non-super-heroic turn as the wife of Reynold’s character. As a blend of thrills and SF ideas, Criminal is competent. Less fortunately, director Ariel Vromen seem content in doing things conventionally, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine the film playing out more grandiosely, taking fuller advantage of its set-pieces. The action scenes are fine, but they could have been done better. Still, wasted potential is more interesting than no potential, and if Criminal didn’t do blockbuster business during its brief theatrical run, it’s got enough of a budget, stars and ideas to make it a more than decent cable-TV choice.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) If you ask written Science Fiction fans why they’re so frequently annoyed by media SF, you’re likely to get variations on a common theme: Media SF doesn’t do much with the ideas it plays with. It’s rare to see a SF movie that plays with ideas longer than the duration of a trailer: More often, the SF premise leads to an intensely familiar plot transplanted from other genres almost as-is. A representative example of this problem can be found in Self/Less, which barely has time to explain its premise (Rich old dying man transplanted in younger body, discovers that the body belonged to someone else and vows to fight those who lied to him before then exterminate him) before settling into a very familiar chase thriller. It’s not exactly a new premise (although viewers should be forgiven if they don’t remember 1966’s Seconds), but the execution’s lack of wit instantly relegates Self/Less to undistinguished bargain bin status. Too bad for Ryan Reynolds, who once again doesn’t have much of a role to play. Too bad for Ben Kingsley, who deserves better. Too bad, too for director Tarsem Singh, who delivers perhaps the blandest film of an otherwise colourful career: Aside from some memory flashes, there’s little in Self/Less to justify using a strongly visual director like Singh. The result, sadly, is almost instantly forgettable: The plot is bland, the action sequences are dull and the emotional beats are intensely predictable. For a film based on class exploitation (as in “being rich enough to buy a new body”), Self/Less doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring them, nor anything else moderately interesting. While Self/Less is competently made, it’s also safe to the point of being featureless. No wonder SF fans often prefer turning to a good book.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) Ryan Reynolds tends to play comic motormouths or action heroes, so it’s not surprising if part of Woman in Gold’s interest in seeing him in the strikingly different role of an earnest and nebbish lawyer who discovers his conscience while helping an elderly Jewish woman recover long-seized family belongings. That the belongings in question are Gustave Klimt painting confiscated by Nazis isn’t immaterial, and enable the film to play in various modes, from historical drama to art appreciation to legal drama to family history. The star of the film isn’t Reynolds, but rather Helen Mirren, revisiting painful family history when she becomes aware that she could reclaim part of her family legacy, abandoned when they fled Nazi Austria. Much of the film’s first half is entirely hers—Reynolds’ character only develops later on. While Woman in Gold feels too long, and derivative in the way it portrays the flashbacks to 1930s Austria, it does build quite an amazing true story and should appeal to an interesting variety of audiences. For Reynolds fans, it’s a reminder that he can act beyond his usual charm, and hold his own against a veteran such as Mirren.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) I’m famously risk-averse, so gambling movies are really my only way to vicariously try to understand the mind of high-stake gamblers. But if casino scenes in James Bond are one thing, movies like Mississippi Grind are fit to scare me straight from any kind of gambling. Much of the film revolves around a gambler at the end of his tether: divorced, unable to do well at the office, our protagonist (a striking performance by Ben Mendlesohn) lives to gamble and has lost far more than he’s won. One day, however, he spots a good luck charm in the form of a chatty young man (Ryan Reynolds, in a role with more depth than he usually plays) and decides to travel from Chicago to New Orleans in the hopes of turning his life around. Mississippi Grind is certainly not part of the heroic gambling movie lineage: most of it takes place in dingy river casinos, with fairly sad characters dressing up for the occasion. Our protagonists’ fortunes go from bad to worse, and even an upbeat ending isn’t quite enough to mask the character study of a degenerate gambler. There’s little to enjoy here, although the film does act as a reminder that Mendlesohn and Reynolds can act when they’re given the chance. As for the rest, Mississippi Grind acts as a terrific Public Service Announcement against the evils of gambling—notwithstanding the ending that justifies everything, of course.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2015) I wasn’t expecting much from this romantic comedy, but got a little bit more than I thought. Much of the film’s laughs come straight from Ryan Reynolds, who plays a bit of a double role here as an awkward overweight teenager and then a womanizing music executive. Stuck in his hometown while caring for a deliriously neurotic pop-star singer, Just Friends blends friend-zone dynamics with holiday scenery for a going-home story that sparkles once in a while. Reynolds has impeccable comic timing (although the film loves him just a bit too much in gawky overweight makeup), and Anna Faris also has decent material to play with as the unstable diva. (Meanwhile, Amy Smart is dull as the romantic lead… but she doesn’t have much to do.) There’s something curiously sentimental in how the protagonist rediscovers his estranged hometown, picking up past relationships along the way. Just Friends strings along its comic set-pieces, hitting the usual rom-com expectations along the way, but falters with its perfunctory ending, which basically mouths the words we’d been waiting for. Still, this is not a film to see for the plot – it’s best appreciated as a collection of comic moments, set-pieces and character traits… and if you squint slightly, you’ll recognize that the movie was shot in a real Canadian winter and mentally adjust the script accordingly.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) What would this film do without the intense likability of its five leads? Well, the script is good enough that it probably could have stood up without the chipmunk smile of Ryan Reynolds at his most likable, Abigail Breslin as his daughter and the trio of Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks as the three mysterious women who may or may not be the daughter’s mother in the convoluted story he tells her. The narrative mystery structure at the heart of Definitely, Maybe helps a lot in making this romantic comedy feel fresher and less predictable than most; so does the look at political campaign work, and he decade-or-so of history that the film present, complete with jokey jabs at recent history. Reynolds is absolutely likable here, and his rapport by Breslin feels natural. Banks, Weisz and Fisher also do good work in roles that aren’t necessarily all sugar and sweetness. Competently directed, acknowledging its clichés while benefiting from them, Definitely, Maybe is a better-than-average romantic comedy that may speak to anyone with a tangled romantic history, and remind everyone that some happy endings remain to be written.
(On TV, January 2015) The nice thing about high-concept romantic comedies is that their failure mode is relatively innocuous: Even when they don’t work, they’re sort-of-enjoyable to watch as long as the lead actors are well cast. That’s definitely the case with The Proposal, an uneven romantic comedy featuring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Both of them play roles familiar to them: As a high-powered publishing executive, it’s not hard to see in Bullock’s performance echoes of Miss Congeniality. As a charming but long-suffering assistant, Reynolds here best plays his romantic lead archetype; sometimes-cocky yet almost irresistibly affable behind his chipmunk grin. Despite (or because) the 12-year age difference, both of them play well with each other –with extra grins given that he’s a Canadian playing an American whereas she’s an American playing a Canadian. They chemistry goes a long way in overcoming the frequent shortcomings of the film, from an Alaskan setting straight out of the East coast, a structure that feels forced to go back to New York for its conclusion, or an unnerving fascination for Oscar Nunez’s obnoxious character all the way to the end credit sequence. Some of the farce is obvious: sometimes it works almost despite itself (such as for the laboriously set-up nude scene), sometimes it just flops around curiously, asking for laughs and not getting any (such as; have we mentioned Oscar Nunez’s character?). At least Bullock and Reynolds are almost always there on-screen, earning sympathy despite an imperfect script. That makes The Proposal worth a look even when it doesn’t reach its fullest potential –what’s not to like about the sumptuous setting, or the fun of hanging out with two likable leads?
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Poor Ryan Reynolds. He’s a very likable actor with a string of good performances in smaller movies (Waiting, Adventureland, Buried, Safe House) but who seems unable to get a role in a high-budget franchise film good enough to make him a superstar. Blade 3, Wolverine, Green Lantern and now R.I.P.D.: he just can’t catch a break. His latest effort is clumsier than most: While R.I.P.D.‘s “undead policemen” premise almost self-consciously attempts to ape high-concept SF comedy such as Men in Black, it never manages to transform a few interesting images into anything close to the potential of its premise. The first act has some potential and amply demonstrates that it’s a big-budget production. Afterwards, though, it seems to become steadily less ambitious and increasingly inept at what it does attempt: The hunt-the-deados rationale lacks urgency compared to the entire “undead policemen” premise, while the overarching plot about a magical artifact seems far too rote to be interesting. It really doesn’t help that the film’s sense of humor is so… odd. Not bad, just odd in ways that seem more bizarre than amusing. (Often, you can tell that someone thought a details would be funny, even though it’s not, in itself, funny.) Many of the script’s conceptual laughs fall flat on-screen –which may simply betray sub-par directing and deficient special effects more than anything else: the idea of “mismatched avatars”, for instance, is cause for more frustration than laughs when it’s used so inconsistently. But the more questions you ask about this film, the more frustrated you’ll get. (Never mind the uncomfortable theological questions raised by the premise, then wilfully ignored by the rest of the film.) The few bright spots include a few early special-effects sequences, Reynold’s aw-sucks performance and a relatively good turn by Jeff Bridges who seems to be reprising his True Grit frontier-lawman persona with panache. R.I.P.D. remarkably degenerates the longer it goes on, suggesting that it, too, is a dead film that doesn’t quite understand how not-alive it is. Hopefully Ryan Reynolds will take notice of the parallels with his career before it’s too late.
(On-demand, September 2012) Body-switching is a surprisingly common trope in live-action films, up to a point where when it’s used in The Change-Up, the focus is less on the fantastical nature of the switch than in the comic potential of the premise. Here, a perennial bachelor (played by Ryan Reynolds) switches bodies with a career-driven family man (played by Jason Bateman). It goes without saying that the film’s biggest pleasure is in seeing Bateman and Reynolds play with their on-screen personas, Bateman undermining his wholesome image while Reynolds reverts to his old Van Wilder days. From the first few minutes, we know that the film will be burdened with scatological references, phallic humor and pervasive bad language. We also know that it’s in the nature of such films to end in a way that reinforces everyone’s social expectations. In other words; don’t expect anything subversive… in fact, brace yourself for mid-thirties juvenility. If you’re in the right mood (amused, forgiving, certainly immature), it works relatively well: there are enough funny gags in-between the formulaic plot scaffolding and the mandatory sentimental moments to make it seem worthwhile. The Change-Up was critically savaged upon release and it’s not hard to see why, but the result is still a slickly-made, occasionally hilarious comedy with two of the most capable comic actors in the business: once you get past the crudity factor, it’s not too bad. It may even have something to say about the nature of one’s place in the world and the happiness we can make for ourselves… in between the constant swearwords and the graceless nudity, of course.
(In theaters, March 2012) Good casting is about finding actors able to fulfill the demands of a particular role; good typecasting is about using the actors’ existing screen persona to flesh out characters. In this case, seeing Ryan Reynolds face off against Denzel Washington and Brendan Geeson, we can already guess a few things about their dramatic arc: Reynolds is a young hot-shot who will learn much; Washington is an honorable rogue who never shows a moment of weakness and Geeson, well, [spoilers]. This kind of ready-made characterization plays right in the hands of Safe House, a routine spy thriller that goes through the motions and delivers at least most of the thrills we expect from a film of its sort. The colorful Cape Town location adds a dash of interest (we see downtown, the stadium, the slums and the neighboring countryside), but much of the film is deeply stepped into the thriller conventions of the espionage business. The premise isn’t bad (young agent sees turncoat show up at his safe house; mayhem ensues) and the development has its moments (say, during the inevitable car chase, or the twists and turns of the stadium sequence) but it leads somewhere very familiar, with plot developments that can safely be predicted by looking at the casting. The direction is an added irritant, as it indulges in pseudo-realistic drab shaky-cam cinematography and mumbled dialogue: it’s exactly the wrong choice of aesthetics for a film that doesn’t really adhere to our version of reality nor has anything crucial to say about the state of the world. Still, the result is entertaining enough, and the lead actors all deliver good performances in typical roles. Fans of Reynolds and Washington will get their fixes, as well as any indulgent thriller buff.
(In theaters, June 2011) Every so often, a film reminds me that I’m fast aging out of the coveted male-geek’s demographic segment… and makes me grateful for that. So it is that I come out of Green Lantern wondering why that movie even exists. My tolerance for comic-book mythologies has never been particularly high, and seeing the Green Lantern universe on-screen only highlights how profoundly silly it is, even by comic-book standards. Here, the accumulated weight of decades of backstory abruptly presented on-screen never goes beyond the simply ridiculous. (Was it really important to learn that practically all characters in the film were grade-school buddies?) By the time we’re flying across the galaxies, discussing the yellow power of fear and fighting threats that unfortunately take the form of a skull over liquid-brown tentacles, the whole Green Lantern shtick is so far removed from human concerns that the film practically degenerates in nonsense. Few of the many people writing the script apparently stopped to ask why audiences should care. Little of the blame over the film’s lack of success should go to Ryan Reynolds, whose cocky charm prevents the film from sinking further into irrelevancy. (It’s also awesome to see Angela Bassett on the big screen again, even in such a small role.) On the other hand, Reynolds’ screen persona is so self-assured that the film is never believable when it questions the character’s lack of courage: Green Lantern’s annoyingly familiar coward-to-hero dramatic arc never gets going, let alone concludes satisfactorily. The dull script occasionally gives birth to a few well-handled scenes (mostly thanks to director Martin Campbell’s touch when it comes to action sequences), but the overall impact is muted. There’s also something slightly off with the special effects, although this ties into the whole “let’s go cosmic without making you care for it” problem. Clearly, I’m not as good an audience for comic book movies as I used to be when I can’t be bothered to say nice things about average efforts like Green Lantern. Ultimately, it may have more to do with the film’s point: Is it using comic-book mythology to talk about something else, or is it simply content to regurgitate the mythology on-screen, without caring if it has any real-world relevance?
(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.
(On DVD, January 2011) As far as nostalgic coming-of-age comedies go, Adventureland is a bit better than the average. Featuring post-teenage characters trying to figure out life from the vantage point of awful summer jobs, this is a film that exceeds expectations while paying homage to familiar material. Set in 1987, the story centers around an intellectual college-age character forced to take a job at a local amusement park, where he meets radically different people and learns a few things about life outside school. To its credit, the film understands that characters and actors are the bedrock on which this kind of small-scale drama fails or succeeds, and the script does well in establishing people with whom we’d want to spend 90 minutes. The film is billed as a comedy, but it’s more affectionately romantic than overly funny –and it features a few plot points played differently than in other similar films. Seeing Adventureland in early 2011 is already a different experience than upon its release in 2009, if only because its leads actors have been in many high-profile projects since then. Jesse Eisenberg’s usual nebbish air works well here, whereas Kristen Stewart keeps playing “wounded” effectively and Ryan Reynolds is willing to let go of his winning persona to expose a deeply flawed character. Writer/director Greg Mottola manages to deliver a retro reminiscence that doesn’t feel of interest solely to people of that time: The result may not be a barrel of laughs, but it will leave you smiling. The DVD features a few extras, the best of which is a chatty commentary by director Mottola and star Eisenberg that starts out feeling meaningless, but eventually reveals a lot about the film’s autobiographical content, low-budget film-making and on-set shooting details.