(On TV, January 2017) I have a list. A list of movies. Popular movies. It’s generated automatically from votes on a web site. I don’t ask why the movies are popular—I just record them off the TV, watch them and cross them off the list. The list tells me what to do. I don’t question the list. The list told me to watch High School Musical. I did. I don’t dislike musical, but I really didn’t realize that this is a Disney Channel made-for-TV movie. I’m a grown man. I will watch what I want. I will feel no shame about it. Even if it means watching something made for tweenagers. Fortunately, High School Musical isn’t too bad, considering its pedigree. The sugared squeaky-clean fantasy vision of a high school is a welcome antidote to far darker movies. (High School Musical vs Brick; discuss!) The actors are all preposterously good-looking, but the small treat here is seeing Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens in likable but soft-edged early roles, almost as prototypes of the screen persona they’d build over the following decade. Of the songs, I liked the ironic “Stick to the Status Quo”, but couldn’t find anything else to hum. I’m far from being the target audience for this film, but I found it charming and inoffensive—I’ll take that over downbeat bore-fests passing themselves off as grown-up entertainment most days of the week. And that’s the power of the list I follow: It takes me away from my comfort zone.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) I would really like to dismiss Spring Breakers as just another piece of exploitative trash, badly-shot and hazily written in an attempt to revel in the debauchery of American Spring Break antics. And much of it is exactly that: Written and directed by notorious trash-master Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers does portray, in gritty pseudo-documentary style, the excesses of Spring Break and the depravity of modern teenagers. But only the most obstinate viewers won’t find a few deeper themes and artistic flourishes running throughout the film. The story of four college girls headed to Spring Break and gradually lured into the criminal lifestyle, Spring Breakers does have a few undeniable strengths doing for it. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid noting that despite the rampant and casual nudity of the film, it often resolutely avoids simple exploitation: picking four young women as protagonists with their own agendas partially frees the film from the girls-gone-wild male gaze, and does much to increase the viewer’s uneasiness at the increasingly violent onscreen antics. Spring Breakers is designed to unsettle and play as societal horror, the excesses of the generation heralding an era of unbridled boozed-up nihilism. Scratch a normal college student, seems to suggest Korine, and a crazed criminal will come out, guns blazing. Alarmism at its finest, but the film does manage to become an impressionistic mash-up of ominous flash-forwards, sampled flashbacks and dissonant montages. From the first scene (featuring a pitch-perfect use of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, which makes sense given how Skrillex helped score the film), the film makes viewers bounces between the light and dark sides of hedonism, eventually scoring a crime spree to an acappella rendition of Britney Spears’s “Baby, One More Time” before juxtaposing a shootout with innocent flashback narration. Suffice to say that the usual fans of Vanessa Hugens, Selena Gomez and James Franco may be in for a bit of a shock –Franco, in particular, turns in a distinctive performance as a top-dog gangster. None of it is especially easy to watch, but the effect is more powerful than expected. Audiences with weak constitutions may not make it to the end –even seasoned viewers may be tempted to reach for the fast-forward button once in a while. Suffice to say that it’s a memorable viewing experience, even though its merits may be obscured by a lot of surface flash.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) There isn’t much about The Frozen Ground’s script that’s in any way special. Based on the sordid story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen, this is a film that does the usual serial-killer thriller in more or less the expected fashion. Much of the execution is equally bland: Newcomer writer/director Scott Walker is entirely too fond of shaky camera tight close-ups and the result can be a bit annoying. But location and casting both manage to raise this B-grade thriller to a level that’s worth watching. Most noteworthy here is Nicolas Cage as the lead investigator: For once, he dispenses with the usual Cage histrionics in order to deliver a far more measured performance, and the result is an interesting throwback to early-era Cage, before he started playing a grander-than-life himself in every role. (Make no mistake: I love operatic “nouveau shamanic” Cage, but the occasional change of tone is nice.) It isn’t the only against-type casting coup of the film, as the repellant antagonist is played by John Cusack (far best known for smart good-guy roles) while Vanessa Hudgens, moving farther away from her earliest squeaky-clean roles, plays the vulnerable victim who is the key to breaking the antagonist’s secrets. The Frozen Ground’s other big asset is location: by setting itself in cold dreary Alaska, the film gains a distinctive visual atmosphere, and seems to crank up the tension of the events a notch further. The most satisfying scenes come late in the movie, as a subdued Cage and a wily Cusack face off against each other in an interrogation room. None of those strengths make The Frozen Ground any better than a run-of-the-mill thriller, but they help make the film more memorable than another cursory effort at the serial-killer sub-genre.
(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.