(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I first saw Die Hard with a Vengeance on opening day, and I’m pretty sure I saw it again on DVD ten or fifteen years ago. But I can’t find a mention of it on this site, so here we go: I really, really like the first two-third of this film. It open on the iconic “Summer in the City” soundtrack of a bustling mid-nineties Manhattan before starting to blow stuff up. Then it’s a wild ride through the city, accumulating brain-teasers, going through cheeky overdone action sequences and letting Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson do what they do best. John McTiernan’s direction is exceptionally good and there’s a sense of fun, joy and movement to the story. Every cinephile imprints on the movies of younger years, and mid-to-late nineties action cinema is the standard against which I will forever measure others. Die Hard With a Vengeance’s first two acts is good, solid, highly enjoyable moviemaking. I like it a lot, and I had forgotten just enough details about the movie to be charmed all over again. It’s also a beautiful wide-screen homage to New York City in its multiplicities of glories. Then … the film leaves Manhattan and loses quite a bit of steam. While the script is always big on coincidences, they get actively outrageous by the time our two main characters meet again upstate. By the time we’re on a boat, the film settles down to a far more conventional beat, and the tacked-on ending at the border feels more superfluous than anything else. Still, two-third of a great movie followed by a third of an okay one is better than the average. Contemporary viewers will notice that both Trump and Clinton are name-checked (the latter as a likely “forty third president”), and that a few moments eerily echo the events of 9/11.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) The trouble with re-watching classics is the tension of judging whether it’s still a classic. I first saw Pulp Fiction, like every twentysomething at the time, in the mid-nineties on VHS—a good friend had brought it home and took delight in seeing me react to specific moments in the movie, whether it was the infamous watch speech or the “Garçon!” time-fixing moment. I filed away Pulp Fiction as a great movie and didn’t think about it. Now that I’m consciously re-watching big hits of the nineties, though, the question was: Did Pulp Fiction hold up, once past more than twenty years of imitators, Tarantino’s evolution and popularization of what (non-linear storytelling, witty dialogues, etc.) made it so special back then? What I clearly had forgotten about the movie was how long it was—at more than two hours and a half, the film is a daunting prospect, and the non-linear structure means that there’s almost an entire unexpected act added to a normal running time. Pulp Fiction, admittedly, doesn’t have the impact of surprise: Tarantino’s shtick is a known quantity by now, and seeing his characters go off on lengthy tangents isn’t surprising, nor seeing full sequences play in nearly real-time. The fractured chronology is still effective—I guarantee that even twenty years later, you will remember a lot of the film’s individual highlights … but not necessarily in which order they’re placed. I had near-verbatim recall of much of the John Travolta storyline, quite a bit of Bruce Willis’s segment (how could I forget the taxi driver, though?) but not much of Samuel L Jackson’s act. Fortunately, the dialogue still works, the dark comedy still feels solid, the cinematic flourishes (from “square” to the dance sequence to Harvey Keitel) still work very well and the movie still impresses by the mastery of its execution. It’s daring, sure, but it’s more importantly put together nearly flawlessly. Pulp Fiction has been endlessly imitated over the years, but it remains a solid best-of-class representation of its own subgenre. It’s well worth a revisit, especially if it’s been a while and yet you’re sure you remember most of it.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Count me as slightly surprised by this two-fisted adventure film. Most reviewers haven’t been kind to The Legend of Tarzan, and their lowering of my expectations surely played into the film’s favour. Once past the prologue and some tiresome rehashing of the classic Tarzan myth, The Legend of Tarzan gets its own identity as an anti-colonialist sequel to the original Burrough. As Tarzan returns to Africa to fight against slavers, the film becomes the straight-up adventure that it should be. Alexander Skarsgård (and his CGI double) is pretty good as the titular hero, Margot Robbie is fine (but no more) as a damsel able to fight her way out of distress, Samuel L. Jackson is dependably enjoyable as an action sidekick and Christoph Waltz is also up to his usual standards as a slimy antagonist. Director David Yates uses his experience helming visual-effects-heavy projects to deliver a swooping, dynamic series of action sequences grounded in the real world: the film reaches its apex by the time Tarzan flies through the jungle. The script isn’t too bad—despite some uninspiring lines, the anti-colonial themes are ambitious and nicely serve the character despite some white-saviour qualms. The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t amount to a remarkable movie, but it does make up most of a decent blockbuster entertainment film. It’s quite a bit better than some of the harshest reviews may suggest, and works just fine at what it wants to be.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) Now here is a pleasant surprise: an honest big-budget slam-bang action thriller featuring iconic images about the American Presidency, coming from… Finland. What? Well, yes. Thanks to the magic of special effects, global financing, location shooting and well-paid actors, even Finland is able to put together the kind of movie that Hollywood wishes it could make. Big Game’s premise is absurdly simple (Air Force One is sabotaged and brought down deep in Finland’s forests—only a boy can help the President escape his pursuers) but it works, largely because writer/director Jalmari Helander is willing to go big and bold on his images and action sequences. It does help that the film can rely on Samuel L. Jackson as a curiously cowardly president, and Jim Broadbent as an oracle of truth with a hidden agenda (his last scene is fantastic). But when the film shows Air Force One crashing into a lake, or being ripped apart by its auto-destruction mechanism, or the President running in the woods like hunted prey, or a heliborne freezer slamming through a forest, this is the kind of action movie iconography that Hollywood has unexplainably abandoned lately. No wonder if Big Game works so splendidly well once it firmly engages into its first act: It plays the action movie Hollywood game better than Hollywood itself, and keeps piling up the cool stuff. It’s unabashedly a thriller and it doesn’t try to be anything else. As such, it’s a success … and it’s too bad that a lot of American filmgoers won’t even hear of it.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) As a confirmed Quentin Tarantino fan, I was expecting The Hateful Eight with a bit of cinephile glee, curious to see what he had in mind. After all, each of his movie is usually an event, doing thing with cinema that other filmmakers usually don’t try. His newest offering makes the unusual bet to transform itself in practically a theatre piece by putting eight characters in a snowbound lodge. The suspense is notable, as most of these characters have backstories and plenty of secrets to reveal in the film’s lengthy running time. By the end, the film becomes graphically violent as tensions erupt in all-out shootouts, poisoning and hanging. The dialogues are good and the performances terrific (with particular applause for Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh), with some assured direction from Tarantino. And yet, and yet… The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite amount to something as good as it could have been. For all of the dialogue’s deliciousness, the film does feel overlong and far too busy for its own good. As the complex plotting and counterplotting accumulates, it’s easy to disengage from the experience of the film. The conclusion is also particularly grim, which doesn’t help. As a result, it feels less interesting than (say) Django Unchained and not quite as meaningful either. Still, even a lesser Tarantino film can feel far more fascinating than other films by more pedestrian authors, so let’s count our blessings that the film exists and wait for Tarantino to come up with something new.
(On TV, July 2016) There was a time, before the McConnaissance, before the Decade of Rom-Coms, when Matthew McConaughey was hailed as a promising young actor, and A Time to Kill (alongside Contact, Amistad and Lone Star) was part of the evidence. Watching it today is like unearthing vintage McConaughey, made even better by the calibre of the cast surrounding him. Samuel L. Jackson in a genuinely unsettling angry father role? Kevin Spacey as a slimy prosecutor? Sandra Bullock as the brilliant girl who comes to save the day? Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Chris Cooper as part of the scenery? Not bad at all. While director Joel Schumaker lets the film run long, he knows what he’s doing in giving it a sweaty high-polish gloss. (Do I need to highlight once more the disappearance of the big-budget standalone thriller in today’s Hollywood industry?) The story is adapted reasonably faithfully from the John Grisham novel, including the uncomfortable considerations of vigilantism. In fact, the movie may be a bit more upsetting in the way it squarely places its sympathies with the justice-seeker and conflating it with a victory for the oppressed (as in; racists are bad, so they get what they deserve and never mind the judicial process.) There’s unpleasant stuff going just under the glossy surface of the story, and it’s not clear whether this is entirely intentional from either Grisham or the screenwriter. Still, A Time to Kill can coast a long time on the charm and persona of its stars. In the end, it’s a film best seen for its cast and execution than for moral questions left untouched.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) As much as I don’t respond eagerly to sports movies, and as much as I don’t feel immediately compelled by tales of black teenagers working themselves out of the ghetto, I have to admit that the savvy blend of sport underdog drama and troubled-youth theatrics in Coach Carter seems made for success. As a bonus, Samuel L. Jackson gets one of his most Samuel L. Jackson-esque role here as the titular coach, using harsh methods to teach disaffected teenagers some work ethics and life skills. Mechanically put together and almost entirely unburdened by surprises, Coach Carter does offer a few highlights even if it takes almost forever in the film for Carter to become an actual protagonist with obstacles to overcome. Much of the sub-plots surrounding the core story are familiar and make the film longer than it should be, although Ashanti turns in a fine performance and Channing Tatum can be seen in an early role. Still, it’s Jackson who elevates the material, providing a credible figurehead through which the tough-love message of the film can echo. While kids may like the film because of the unlikely victories, parents will love the sugar-coated message about the value of work and discipline. As with most other sports movies, this is an aspiration story of moral values played on a field –designed for maximum appeal.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Kingsman was billed as “Kick-Ass for the spy movie” and that did nothing to put me in a good mood given how I disliked Kick-Ass’ mixture of cheap cynicism, crudeness and hypocrisy. It felt aimed at a far younger audience, and I feared that Kingsman would more or less go that same way. But while Kingsman does have its own crude excesses in presenting its chav-becomes-suave plotline (oy, that final joke), it’s also gleefully fun and honestly enamoured with the material it emulates: It’s instructive to compare the film with 2002’s “hipper Bond” xXx and how eloquent Kingsman can be in promoting the classical gentlemen-spy archetype. (Try not to quote “Manners maketh man” the next time you proudly pick up a good umbrella.) Director Matthew Vaughn knows what kind of film he’s building, and the result is far more satisfying than his own previous Kick-Ass. It certainly helps that the film can rely on Colin Firth as the ultimate gentleman spy. Firth, not previously known for anything resembling an action role, here gets two splendid action sequences –they may be heavily enhanced by blurry special effects, but he looks and acts the part well enough to convince. The simulated-single-shot church scene is regrettably ultra-violent, but it’s also an anthology piece for a very specific kind of action mayhem. Taron Egerton is remarkable as the lead protagonist, but the film is also filled with interesting supporting performances by Samuel L. Jackson (having fun at the expense of the usual villainous clichés), Sofia Boutella as an enabled enforcer and Mark Strong in a welcome non-antagonist role. The editing and direction flows quickly and wittily, with a great soundtrack support and enough winks and nods to other movies to make it even more interesting. A self-assured comedy with just enough action beats to make it a respectable spy thriller, Kingsman feels fresh and fun.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I’m not going to be coy about my biases going into this movie: The original South-Korean Oldboy did not need to be remade for an American audience. Seeing Spike Lee tackle the project is a bit of a waste, especially when the result seems to stick as closely to the original. I suppose that the film would be worth a look for those who haven’t seen the original: It has an intriguing mystery at its core, an unconventional revenge story, enough icky plot points to make it memorable and a bit of style as bonus. (It’s best not to think too long about the finer points of the plot, but so it goes.) Josh Brolin is a solid protagonist, Samuel L. Jackson has a flashy short role and Sharlito Copley turns in another off-kilter performance as the villain. Still, this American Oldboy runs long, never quite connects to the protagonist, somehow doesn’t earn its wilder plot points and doesn’t quite know how to control its tone. This being said, nearly everyone who should have seen the original has seen the original, and comparisons are where much of this remake’s interest is about. It does seem to beg comparison, so closely does it adhere to the original –there’s even a bit of a fake-out where it seems as if the most effective twist of the original has been neutralized. And while much of the remake is less impressive than the original, its coda is more credible than the hypnotism mumbo-jumbo of the Korean version. In the end, though, this Oldboy falls in-between respectable cinema and effective exploitation, satisfying no one –and annoying those who thought the (even flawed) original should have been left alone.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky. So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series. It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy. Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny. (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.) (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film. Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries. At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.
(On DVD, April 2011) The marketing of this film scream southern exploitation, but the end result is more concerned with blues music and moral redemption than it is about tough-love cures for nymphomania. Samuel L. Jackson turns in an impressive performance as a retired-bluesman gentleman farmer who sees himself obligated to reform a deeply troubled girl who ends up in his front yard. (Christina Ricci, with a performance that’s both convincing and topless.) The surprise of the film however, is to see to what degree it manages to incorporate music as a guiding theme: Jackson himself is credible as a bluesman, and the soundtrack of the film holds up by itself. But that’s not as much of a surprise when considering that Black Snake Moan (titled from a classic blues number) is written and directed by Craig Brewer, whose previous film was Hustle & Flow: The two films share a number of similarities going beyond southern atmosphere and setting, to disgraced protagonists finding redemption in music. While Black Snake Moan doesn’t have many surprises and seems to move just a bit too slowly at times, it’s a success in presenting unusual characters in desperate situations and making us care for them. Jackson is a force of nature in this film, and the nature of the character lets him show a little bit more of his range than usual. The film isn’t nearly as offensive as the marketing would let you believe, and even if it cuts dramatic corners once in a while (the ending is a bit weak), it does feel a bit deeper than its first few minutes would suggest. A few tonal adjustments may have helped make it a bit easier to consider… but would it have destroyed the film’s voice? The DVD’s supplements (a few documentaries and an engaging commentary by director Brewer) lay to rest some of those questions as they explain the film’s origins in the director’s panic attacks, the weaving of musical and religious themes, as well as the advantages of shooting a film “at home” near Memphis.
(On DVD, January 2011) Direct-to-Video thrillers are usually exercises in cheap minimalism, bad dialogue, paycheck-grabbing C-list actors and little lasting impact. But not always, and Unthinkable is that rare example of a D2V film that should have played in theatres… even if few people would have seen it. Deliberately structuring its premise on a manipulative scenario, this is a horror-thriller hybrid that sets out to explore the moral choices in torturing a terrorist that may know where a few nuclear bombs are ticking away. Carrie-Anne Moss is the audience’s stand-in as a FBI agent confronted with the lengths at which the US government will go in the name of national security; she’s faces down not only Michael Sheen as an uncommonly-prepared terrorist, but also Samuel L. Jackson as a “consultant” who’s as ruthless as he may be necessary. Jackson’s performance is showy: At times threatening, charming, sociopathic and respectable, he’s the devilish imp whispering about the dark side that torture apologists are ready to embrace –and he’s easily one of the top reasons to see the film. While Unthinkable eventually tips its hand toward the dramatic demands of the ticking-bomb scenario, it does so in a way that doesn’t shy from the moral stains that accompany the choice: there are at least two oh-cripes! moments where the film escalates well beyond what we’re used to see, and the constant horror-film atmosphere is as disturbing in its depiction of surgically-precise torture as anything else. Suffice to say that film sticks in mind well after a good chunk of what’s in theatres fades away. On the other hand, similar (yet far more gentle) films tacking contemporary moral issues such as Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs all flopped spectacularly at the box-office. If you listen really carefully to the intriguing DVD audio commentary, you can almost understand that the film’s producing company got in financial trouble in early 2009 and a direct-to-DVD releasing strategy became the only way for the film to reach a public. No matter, though: The result is an unnerving mixture of techno-thriller premise with a horrific tone. The DVD offers a solid audio commentary (stay tuned for the discussion of their very special “subject matter consultant”) and an alternate ending that’s even grimmer than the finished film.
(In theaters, August 2010) I don’t usually enjoy Will Ferrell’s brand of semi-retarded adolescent-grown-old comedy, so my expectations going into The Other Guys were as low as they could be. That explains my surprise at this generally successful buddy-movie cop comedy. Of course, everything will look great after the disaster that was Cop Out earlier in 2010; still, The Other Guys has a lot of fun cataloguing, tweaking and subverting an entire list of action movie clichés. It starts with a treat of a cameo, as Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson play bigger-than-life parodies of the action-movie cops we’re used to see on-screen. Then it’s back to “the other guys” who fill the paperwork and do the actual investigation that goes on behind the usual action sequences: Will Ferrell as a nebbish cop with a wild past and normally-staid Mark Wahlberg as a competent policeman held back by a mistake. The film comes with half a dozen of respectable action sequences, and a steady stream of hilarious moments. Of course, it doesn’t always work: The danger is subverting conventions that exist given their storytelling power is that the subversion often robs the film of its story. At times, The Other Guys is too scattered and less satisfying than it should have been. Another problem is that the material is so broad that it’s often uncontrolled: a number of scenes run too long and feel too dramatic in the middle of so much silliness. (The credits, for instance, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Michael Moore film.) Those tonal problems can be annoying: While the film generally takes place in a recognizable reality, it also occasionally slips up and spends a few moments in a far more fantastical Simpsonesque universe, and the shifts between both tones only reminds us of realism’s dullness. But the advantages of such a scatter-shot approach are that sooner or later, another good moment will come along to make everyone forget about the latest dull sequence. A number of eccentric characters all get their moment in the spotlight (few more so than Michael Keaton’s father-figure captain or Eva Mendes as a supposedly-plain wife), much as a few standout sequences really pop, such as a bullet-time sequence of wild debauchery tableaux, continued abuse of the protagonist’s poor Prius and a purely indulgent slow-motion boardroom shootout. The Other Guys isn’t focused and runs out of laughs toward the end, but bits of it are clever and its overall impact is surprisingly charming.
(On DVD, July 2009) There are many ways to be disappointed by Frank Miller’s The Spirit. The most esoteric one is by comparison to Will Eisner’s classic comic strips (or even Dwayne Cooke’s wonderful revival): The off-beat medium-specific tone of the original is a tough assignment for adaptation at best, but it becomes a mishmash in Miller’s hands, who seems more interested in ripping off his own Sin City than to deliver a coherent film. But you don’t have to be familiar with Eisner’s form experiments to think that this is a poor film: The Spirit veers from high camp to pitch-dark noir without much grace, and not even an astonishing gallery of lovely actresses is enough to redeem the result. Samuel L. Jackson does well as a high-spirited villain, but it’s a shame that Gabriel Macht doesn’t have more to do as the square-jawed hero. Visually, it’s a Sin City sort-of-sequel, although the quality of the images is much higher than what comes out of the speakers: The dialogue is over-the-top to a degree that seems stiff and self-conscious rather than amusingly arch. For a mash-up of crime and superhero fiction, there aren’t that many set-pieces worth remembering and the only one that sticks in mind has no choice than to resort to full-blown Nazi imagery. Little of it makes sense, and so the biggest disappointment of The Spirit is to think of what a much better film it could have been in other hands.
(On VHS, September 2000) Considered without preconceptions, this is a standard crime film with some interesting moments. Disappointment set in as soon as we’re reminded that it’s “Directed by Quentin Tarantino” during the end credits. This isn’t the fantastic piece of cinema that could be expected from the wunderkind auteur of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. At best, it let itself be watched with interest despite its lengthy duration. At worst, it’s a regrettably boring adaptation of a lousy book. Few cinematic pyrotechnics, and the main event (a caper told from three perspectives) seems more gratuitous than organically useful. Robert de Niro’s character is nearly superfluous. Samuel L. Jackson is good, but routine, a description that might be applied to the film as a whole; unspectacular, but competent. Rather long, though.