Barney’s Version (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Barney’s Version</strong> (2010)

(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version.  It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments.  I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen.  That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together.  While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible.  Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it.  Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale.  It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo.  It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable.  Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Winter’s Bone</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, January 2011) There are films I won’t see unless they’ve been nominated for Academy Awards, but Winter’s Bone goes father in being a film I wouldn’t have seen all the way to the end unless it had been nominated for an Academy Award.  Taking place deep in the rural Ozarks area, the film is set in a desperately poor way of life where petty crime and family loyalty override more wholesome values: this, clearly, isn’t the virtuous middle-America lauded by social conservatives.  It’s in cold weather that our wise-by-necessity teenage heroine sets out to discover where her missing father has gone, despite violent warnings, the quasi-certitude of illegal activity and the bone-chilling landscape of winter in hillbilly hell.  What could have been an intriguing criminal investigation set against an unusual setting instead turns into an experience of endurance as the film quickly becomes a trek through a place that I desperately wanted to escape.  The harsh naturalistic cinematography, coupled with ugly characters, desperate circumstances and bleak landscapes, does everything to repulse viewers.  Meanwhile, the slow pacing, lack of plotting and repellent circumstances only prolong the agony.  While there are a few nice sequences in the film (the lake scene is brilliantly gruesome), an interesting inversion of the usual city=bad; rural=good clichés, and Jennifer Lawrence is a solid anchor for the film, much of it feels like an endless nightmare: I spent most of Winter’s Bone thinking Get me out of here… even as I was doing something else at the time.  Goodness helps those who see this without distractions.

Secretary (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Secretary</strong> (2002)

(On DVD, January 2011) In certain circles, Secretary is often held up as a mainstream-friendly introduction to the dominant/submissive mindset –not your usual fare for romantic comedies, and certainly its most enjoyable trait.  Whatever shortcomings the film may have, at least it’s willing to celebrate its kinkiness: The main characters don’t play by the usual rules, and neither does Writer/Director Steven Shainberg: From the first few moments, Secretary delves deep into kink and makes it feel like a perfectly understandable lifestyle.  As a depressive young woman (Maggie Gylenhall) falls under the spell of her unusual boss (James Spader, patron saint of proud deviants), the film becomes both stranger and more self-assured.  Despite the added spice of dominance and submission, the core of the film is a solid romance between two characters whose psychological issues complement well.  It’s fun, charming, often cute despite some unpleasant material and absolutely non-threatening.  There are a few problems with the third act, which seems to falter and lose control by going for an overly-public absurdist resolution.  Still, it manages a tricky balance for a difficult subject and it ends on a happy note that pleasantly wraps up everything.  Gyllenhall is mesmerizing in the lead role –nearly ten years later, this is still her career-best performance.  Secretary may not be a particularly great film, but it’s certainly striking, unexpected and confident in the ways it dares celebrate its lack of social convention.  No wonder many people still think of it fondly.

Adventureland (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Adventureland</strong> (2009)

(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.

Seven Deadly Wonders, Matthew Reilly

<em class="BookTitle">Seven Deadly Wonders</em>, Matthew Reilly

Pocket, 2007 paperback reprint of 2006 original, 547 pages, C$9.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-4165-0506-8

Matthew Reilly writes thrillers like Michael Bay directs movies.

I will let you figure out if this is a compliment.  There’s little grace and subtlety to Reilly’s writing style and it only takes a few pages into Seven Deadly Wonders to be reminded of his overuse of exclamation points, illustrative info-graphics, short paragraphs (sometimes even one-word paragraphs) and tough-guy machismo.  Every sentence has its own camera angle and his action scenes aren’t written as much as they’re loudly pounded with a thrash metal back-beat.

It doesn’t make for fine writing, but it does amount to a unique reading experience akin to an unlimited-budget summer blockbuster.  Reilly’s never been one to think small, and Seven Deadly Wonders roars forward from the very beginning, occasionally pausing for explanatory interludes and flash-backs.  Moving away from his usual military techno-thriller plot formula to embrace a Da Vinci Code-esque blend of modern gadgets, supernatural mysticism and historical trivia, Reilly posits a vast Antique conspiracy to hide away a terrible artefact in vast trap-filled catacombs.  When three competing forces all start gunning each other to gain elements of the artefact, the fun begins.

Breaking away from his series of novels featuring top US Special Forces operative Shane Scofeild, Reilly doesn’t go looking too far for his next protagonist: Jack West Jr. is a top Australian special forces operative with two degree in ancient history –which proves handy given the book’s emphasis on ancient mysteries.  Refining his usual formula of thrusting a team of special operatives against ever-increasing odds, Reilly has some fun in incorporating a ten-year-old girl in the proceedings (she ends up re-naming the rest of the team, tweaking tough-guy names like “Saladin” to something like “Pooh Bear”) and making the ensemble cast a more integral part of the story.

The biggest change in attitude between both series, however, is the inclusion of a dose of supernatural content in the form of prophecies, ancient advanced technologies and mystical light-shows.  In an insightful afterword, Reilly refers to Seven Deadly Wonders as contemporary fantasy, which is really just another way of saying that he’ll push premises as far as they can go.  Compared to most of the other thrillers clearly showing a Dan Brown influence, Reilly prefers a far more muscular thriller component: The book doesn’t skimp on large-scale action scenes, explosions, advanced military equipment and global power-plays.  It offers a frenetic global hunt for relics of the Seven Wonders of the World and ends with a spectacular set-piece involving the great pyramid, a hovering 747 and blood sacrifice leading to no less than a thousand years of domination for the winning team.  Whew!

As long as you consent to play by Reilly’s rules, this is pure escapist entertainment.  Reilly’s intention to always go bigger, faster and crazier sets him apart from other writers still preoccupied with plausibility, and results in some spectacular sequences –there’s a really good set-piece set in an overhanging garden that’s as crazy as it’s entertaining.  While some of Reilly’s tricks will strike high-brow readers as skirting illiteracy (read the book aloud to realize how insanely dramatic his prose style can be), there’s something fascinating in seeing him re-use blockbuster and video-game aesthetics in a prosaic context.  Seven Deadly Wonders is abundantly illustrated with diagrams designed to make sense of the action, making for a very peculiar reading experience bridging the gap between prose and videogame mechanics.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Seven Deadly Wonders is how it manages to one-up much of Reilly’s already-extreme bibliography.  The mysticism may be off-putting in a thriller context, but the atmosphere of everything-goes is coherent, and there’s a lot of cleverness in fitting modern action in ancient settings and layers of mythology.  Reilly makes most other thriller writers look like sedate bores.  There’s no need to look for social relevance or dramatic depth here: Seven Deadly Wonders is purely committed to its own aesthetics, and that’s a huge part of why it feels so interesting.  Like it or not, few other writers are as dedicated at pushing the state-of-the-art in that particular direction, and even those who complain about this book being geared to the ADD generation may find something of note here.

[February 2011: A full-length review of follow-up Jack West adventure Six Sacred Stones would be redundant, as it has pretty much the same strengths and weaknesses as Seven Deadly Wonders: action-movie-inspired plotting and prose, numerous diagrams, constant movement and a blend of high tech gadgets in spectacular ancient settings.  It does feel a bit duller when read shortly after its predecessors and redundant as well: The first book ended on a definitive note, whereas this one sets up a cliff-hanger to be resolved in Five Greatest Warriors. I have no plans to stop reading, but I would like Reilly to write something else at some point.]

The Mechanic (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Mechanic</strong> (2011)

(In theatres, January 2011) Jason Statham may not be a very versatile actor, but he is very good at the one kind of role that suits him best, and he’s shown himself more than able to keep on doing what people ask of him.  This means that there is such a thing as “a Jason Statham film” even as the concept of the action hero actor has fallen off the wayside lately.  His latest, The Mechanic, is solid middle-of-the-road material for him.  Playing a seasoned assassin taking on an apprentice, Statham stretches no thespian muscle yet still manages to deliver the goods.  As the title of the film suggests, he’s icy precision in a film that seems happy to recycle familiar action-movie clichés with an unhealthy side-order of coincidence and bland cinematography.  To its credit, it doesn’t take on pretentious airs and understands the kind of thrills that the audience expects from “that kind of (Statham) movie”: This is strictly B-grade filmmaking, competent but not exhilarating.  Its bland overexposed cinematography does have a bit of an old-fashioned atmosphere, almost as if this remake was trying to deliver a film-long visual homage to its 1972 original.  Director Simon West has been inconsistent through the years, but here he doesn’t seem terribly interested in delivering anything more than the usual –although a hit in a downtown Chicago hotel does have its moments.  (Plus, there’s the “garbage shredder scene” to deliver at least one solidly unpleasant jolt.)  Otherwise, The Mechanic is strictly routine, down to the accidental airport meeting that precipitates the conclusion and the expected plot beats tied up during the epilogue.  As an action movie, it’s competent without being exceptional –exactly the kind of film that appears, doesn’t disappoint, and then sinks away forever into bargain bins.

The Kids are All Right (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Kids are All Right</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, January 2011) If you consider this film solely from its pedigree sheet, you may expect something significant: Film-festival’s favourite, lauded by reviewers, nominated for a truck-load of awards, performances by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo —The Kids are All Right has to be something special, right?  And if you just look at the surface, the film’s two major tweaks on the usual family-drama template may be interesting: As the two kids of a lesbian couple come of age, they reconnect with their biological father, causing the father and one of their moms to have an affair.  Cue the applause for a frank portrayal of what modern families can be.  But beyond that departure from the usual family drama formula, what’s left?  Not much.  So little, in fact, that once you get the “unconventional family” premise, the film struggles to justifies its existence: The dialogue feels familiar, the plotting is a well-worn formula, the characters are all annoying in their own way, and the laughs in this “comedy” are both rare and slight.  By the time the film remembers that it has a serious adultery subplot, the film concludes at a speed it couldn’t bother to reach at any time before that.  The sex scenes don’t rescue the film, and neither do the actors involved.  There’s a self-defeating quality in how The Kids Are All Right manages to make its unusual family seem as boring as any traditional nuclear family elsewhere in America.  Is the film all right?  Sure it is.  But not much more.

Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler

<em class="BookTitle">Barney’s Version</em>, Mordecai Richler

Knopf, 1997, 355 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-40418-X

Commonly-held wisdom is that movies ruin books, but that relationship usually proves true in only one direction, for readers of the original who then see the movie adaptation.  There is much less appreciation for the way the arrow runs in reverse: how movies can enhance books when viewers go on to read the original.

Seeing 2010’s Barney’s Version movie adaptation is an ideal way to prepare for reading Mordecai Richler’s 1997 novel, his last work of book-length fiction.  Given how Barney’s Version is a lengthy autobiographical ramble by a man who has had three wives, the opening pages of the story makes no attempt at nicely introducing the reader to the gallery of characters what have come to populate Barney Panovsky’s life.  What are those references to Bogie?  Who is “the second Ms. Panofvsky”?  How many wives has Barney had anyway?

The relationships aren’t one-to-one between novel and film: The events of the film version has been pushed fifteen years forward, ditch a Paris-set prologue for Rome, update details of Barney’s television-show production company, combine a few characters, streamline some scenes and abandon many of Barney’s crankier reflections on Montréal and Québec society as seen from the perspective of a Jewish English-Canadian.  Gone are the vicious attacks on separatism, dismissive thoughts on young activists and conscious rebellions against political correctness.

But all of those are in the book, and more.  The point of reading Barney’s Version is to understand more fully the characters surrounding Barney, and peek a little deeper in his mind.  Among other treats, we get to know what happens to a few characters abruptly evacuated from the film as soon as their plot points are accomplished –I particularly appreciated learning how the now-obese “second Ms. Panofvsky” kept hounding Barney throughout his life, or what happened to Cedric after Paris.  Barney is such a character that reading him about circa-1995 annoyances is good enough for a few smiles –and I’m voluntarily not trying to link Barney to Richler himself.  As a nod to Richler’s best-know work, Duddy Kravitz is even mentioned a few times as another elderly businessman who has never lost his touch for the subtle con.

Barney’s Version can feel like hard work at first, though: The blizzard of names, disconnected events, shorthand references and deliberate mistakes in the text is meant to reflect the way Barney is losing his mind to Alzheimer.  The first few pages don’t make for a friendly reading experience, though –and that’s with the help of the film in mapping the relationships between the characters.

One of the question that often comes in recommending that readers spoil themselves rotten with the movie adaptation before tackling the source novel is whether the reader can still be surprised, satisfied or otherwise caught up in a story whose twists and turns are already known.  Ignoring adaptations that use a premise before going in their own direction, or those who change key elements of the resolution, Barney’s Version proves that a sufficiently skilled storyteller can keep up the surprises even when you know all the tricks up his sleeve.  The framing device of the book itself (untranslatable in film) is remarkably effective and even if the final revelation to the book is the same as the movie, nothing can quite prepare the reader for the last page: even the last few “damn, damn, damn” of the novel give the extra emotional layer to the truths left unrevealed to some characters.

If you’ve seen the film and thought that maybe something was missing, do yourself a favour and get a little bit more of Barney Panofvsky’s cranky wisdom.  (It’s no exaggeration that the written Barney would have hated the film version of his life, restructured around a pat romantic drama.)  At the same time, you’ll understand why Mordecai Richler’s ghost still remains such a presence over the Canadian literary scene, even a decade after his death.

Cooking with Stella (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cooking with Stella</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, January 2011) I wish I could say that I liked this film.  It is, after all, a brave little multicultural Canadian comedy that flips over the usual “Canadian goes to a developing country” storyline by pitting its Canadian characters against wilier opponents.  Writer/Director Dilip Mehta is committed to a film that treats its Indian characters are honestly as possible, and when a young couple of Canadians goes working at the country’s embassy in India, they quickly find out that the native help can’t help but help themselves to the riches of the Canadian government.  Their most formidable helper/antagonist is Stella, who has spent thirty years learning how to exploit her position and isn’t about to let the scruples of newcomers stop her.  Cooking With Stella is unarguably on Stella’s side as she raids the pantry of her employers, redirects grocery/housekeeping money in her pockets and schemes to extract even more riches from the first world.  There’s a lesson in the counter-exploitation of Rousseau’s Noble Savage for you.  At some point, though, one has to wonder where the film’s moral compass is going: Everyone’s a caricature, the honest souls are corrupted, Stella gets away with her schemes and the film struggles to make any kind of point.  It may be a bit more honest than what you’d expect in portraying Canadians as gullible naïfs outclassed by their Indian “servants”, but it’s not particularly pleasant in the slightest –and you have to wonder if the film ends up reinforcing stereotypes along the way.  The normally-reliable Lisa Ray is top-billed as a major character, but shows up in an unsympathetic bit part and goes missing for much of the film.  Stella’s final act of pocket-riffling blows the film up into too-silly territory, but the damage is done even by that point: Moving ungracefully between subplots ranging from young romance to cooking lessons, Cooking with Stella ends up being a very tepid comedy clash between cultures.  See it if you have an interest in modern India, in cooking or in tracking down Lisa Ray’s complete filmography… but don’t expect any kind of feel-good experience unless you manage to identify with Stella.

The Gate House, Nelson DeMille

<em class="BookTitle">The Gate House</em>, Nelson DeMille

Grand Central, 2008, 677 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-53342-3

Even twenty years after publication, Nelson DeMille’s The Gold Coast remains an oddity in the author’s bibliography: It’s not a thriller as much as it’s a romantic drama, a social study and a mournful look at the end of an era.  Set among the Long Island upper-crust, it tells of a tragic love triangle between a narrator, his wife and a Mafia don having purchased a property in the very exclusive old-money “Gold Coast” community.  It doesn’t end well, and by the end of the novel our narrator left Long Island for an unspecified duration, taking a sailboat trip around the world while the old way of life on the Gold Coast continues to disappear.

As The Gate House begins, ten years later, John Sutter is back on Long Island to take care of business: After sailing for years and establishing himself in London, Sutter is compelled to head to the scene of The Gold Coast when his old housekeeper is hospitalized for her last few days.  Trying to take care of the estate, he discovers that his ex-wife is back in the area as well, and he is soon contacted by the son of his deceased nemesis for “business”.  Before long, Sutter is once again navigating the dangerous shoals between love, in-laws, mafia lords, yachting clubs, Iranian expatriates and everything else that can fit on Long Island.

Readers used to the typical DeMille protagonist will feel instantly comfortable with Sutter’s smart-alec narration.  Sutter, having married into money, had always been described in the previous book, as being in the Long Island aristocracy and yet not part of it.  After ten years away, his detachment is even more pronounced in the sequel.  His comments on everyone are acerbic and often very funny –no one deals with in-laws as acidly as a DeMille protagonist.  His narration gives some narrative energy to a very long book in which not much actually happens.

If there’s one thing to keep in mind about The Gate House, it’s that it’s not driven by plot.  Leisurely-paced, it spends pages ruminating on the events of the previous novel (so much so that even readers who haven’t read it will be thoroughly spoiled within a few chapters), and then lets plot points accumulate every fifty pages or so.  Even Sutter’s easygoing and witty narration can’t mask the slow pacing or the thinness of the story.  Much of the point in describing the evolution of Long Island feels like a rethread as well –if The Cold Coast was about the end of eras as nouveaux riches were invading the hunting grounds of the old aristocracy while the mafia was losing its influence, then The Gate House is an epilogue in which the invasion is complete, estates having being replaced by McMansions, and the mob being unable to provide leaders as capable as the previous ones.  The Gate House is also significantly lower in thrills, not only compared to the rest of DeMille’s work, but also compared to The Gold Coast itself –while the original was already more focused on relationships than on action sequences, the sequel is even more sedate, physical danger being late in threatening Sutter and sharply resolved when it happens.

For readers worried about DeMille’s career after a few duds in a row and an unhealthy obsession with 9/11 (the two being related), The Gate House offers a cautiously optimistic indication: DeMille is still obsessed with 9/11, as the events of the novel take place in 2002 and semi-faithfully recall the paranoia of the time.  Fortunately, The Gate House isn’t as  thoroughly insane as either Night Fall or Wild Fire… even if some character decisions seem dubious at best, or plot-driven at worst.  The Gate House is, at least, pleasant to read throughout, even entertaining to a degree that DeMille hadn’t been able to sustain since Up Country.  While the result won’t be enough to make any sceptic claim that DeMille is back, it’s better enough to make us believe that he’s taken a step away from the edge.

Since “too long” has been a feature of DeMille’s novels for a while, and since DeMille has dabbled with romance in a few books (in Spencerville, for instance), it’s not as if fans will be caught unprepared by The Gate House’s mixture of slow pacing, courtship and sarcastic narration.  But compared with the rest of DeMille’s pre-2001 bibliography, The Gate House isn’t much of a success.  It’s an average entry in the author’s bibliography –entertaining, even amusing, but far from reaching any kind of high point in either thrills or drama.  It will make fans happy… but it’s unlikely to draw in newer readers, or restore faith that he’s regained his touch.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Girlfriend Experience</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, January 2011) Steven Soderbergh in full indie mode isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart moviegoer.  Here, he edits a plotless film with a blender and expects us to follow along as a high-priced escort navigates through a difficult week.  Her clients are distant; her live-in boyfriend gets invited to Vegas for a boy’s weekend out; a new client proves uncommonly attractive; a journalist interviews her about her job; a reviewer gives her a bad write-up… and that’s all happening over the background of the 2008 financial crisis and US presidential elections.  As a portrait of an upper-class escort offering “the girlfriend experience” of companionship, it’s not uninteresting as we see her take notes, feign interest, seek guidance in astrology, investigate other business opportunities and ultimately confuse business with pleasure.  But gee –for all the work we’re asked to do in reconstructing the film’s plot in our heads, there simply isn’t a whole lot of it in the film’s running time.  Much of The Girlfriend Experience is a mood piece, and it’s a portrait of a fairly repellent class of people always hustling, always doing what they can to prove themselves, assert control over others and race to the top of the heap.  There’s an amusing symmetry in seeing our protagonist-escort living with a personal trainer who uses much of the same language during his day job, in seeing rich clients delude themselves that they are Masters of Universe, in dealing with web consultants, accountants and reviewers just as insecure as she is.  Much has been made of adult film star Sasha Gray playing the protagonist, but there simply isn’t much to her performance than a somewhat pretty look and a striking blank lack of affect that even becomes one of the film’s most cutting lines.  As with Soderbergh’s other indie films, there’s some value and meaning in the film, but much of it seems unnecessarily diffuse, hazily camouflaged behind technique, striking low-budget visuals and a distant protagonist.  By far the most interesting thing about the DVD (film included) is the audio commentary in which Soderbergh and Gray discuss craft, the state of film (both mainstream and adult), ways in which film grammar can be defined, and Gray’s acting challenges as an outsider.  The commentary’s quite a bit more enjoyable and coherent that the main feature –in fact, I’d recommend it as its own thing over The Girlfriend Experience itself.  Elsewhere on the DVD, you’ll find a fluff pseudo-documentary giving you a short version of what’s worth remembering about the film, and an alternate cut of the movie that, frankly, didn’t seem all that alternate but should delight art-house film students –which may be the film’s best audience.

Unthinkable (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Unthinkable</strong> (2010)

(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 the Loop (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">In the Loop</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, January 2011) You wouldn’t think that a dialogue-heavy comedy about the way countries are manipulated in supporting wars would be riveting… and you would be wrong.  Because films with dialogue as brilliant as In the Loop don’t often come along, and its absurdist approach to portraying bureaucracy will strike a chord to anyone working in an office.  The big difference, however, is the political slant, and the R-rated dialogue.  Anyone who thinks that profanity is the refuge of the inarticulate needs to watch this film to hear some inventive swearing.  Both vulgar and profound, In the Loop makes comedy out of high-level incompetence, bureaucratic delusions, international power-plays and the tension between personal and official capacities.  While the telescoped introduction and somewhat laugh-free finale are unusual, they can be explained by the fact that this is a sort-of-adaption of a British TV show, The Thick of It, that tries to update Yes Minister to contemporary times: If a number of dramatic arcs seem unresolved or hazily set up, familiarity with the TV show may help.  Still, the best way to enjoy the film is just to let the fantastic dialogue and Peter Capaldi’s performance hit you like a 90-minutes-long delight.  Surprisingly enough, the DVD edition of the film comes with no extra features whatsoever, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Martian Child (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Martian Child</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, January 2011) I come to Martian Child from a somewhat different perspective that those who approach it as a straight-up adoption drama.  After all, I have read and enjoyed David Gerrold’s 2003 autobiographical novel that expanded the novelette on which the film is based.  The novel skirts a bit with science-fiction content, but doesn’t depend on it, and the movie is even firmer in its mainstream affiliation.  John Cusack makes for a sympathetic protagonist as a widower choosing to adopt a difficult child.  The adult is a science-fiction writer; the kid thinks he’s from Mars: the rest is a mixture of funny moments and poignant sequences all leading to the expected emotional catharsis.  It’s as routine as a film of this kind can be, that is to say that it hits all of the expected targets along the way and never feels as anything but a Hollywood movie.  The details are interesting, though, and SF fans with a bit of knowledge about the field will laugh themselves silly at the portrayal of the SF writer as a superstar.  Those with memories of Gerrold’s work won’t fail to notice, however, that Cusack is not playing Gerrold, and that significant elements of the plot have been changed –most notably that Gerrold is gay, while the film’s protagonist is not.  Still, don’t assume any vast betrayal of the author’s vision: Gerrold himself appears (alongside his adopted son) in one of the DVD’s featurettes, and the merits of the written story in portraying a difficult adoption process have been generally preserved.  While the film doesn’t amount to much more than a routine role for Cusack and a manipulative TV-movie-of-the-week drama, it is interesting in its own way, and the filmmakers certainly deliver what they intended.  The DVD includes a few interesting featurettes, as well as an audio commentary that’s as mildly entertaining as the film itself.

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Resident Evil: Afterlife</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, January 2011) I have an unaccountable soft spot for the Resident Evil films, and part of the fascination is seeing how the series continues to surprise even in its fourth installment: Not only has it squeezed two adventures after the logical end-point of most zombie movies (that is: the infection going global, everybody dying, etc.), the series has actually recovered from the awful second film and Afterlife continues to show how clever it can be in delivering polished visuals, action thrills and further developments to its own playful mythology.  Impressively enough, this installment depowers a seemingly omnipotent Alice after a deliriously overpowered first sequence.  Then it’s off to Los Angeles (via Alaska) for a little more of that claustrophobic Resident Evil setting.  A new crew is introduced, many of them discarded on the way to the conclusion, and there’s a nice little upswing to the conclusion. (Hint: don’t stop watching right after the credits start to roll and pay attention to the credited names that haven’t yet appeared in the film.)  I haven’t always been kind to director Paul W.S. Anderson, but his eye for impressive visual sequences is undeniable, and his return to the series helps make this fourth entry the strongest since the first one.  (This made-for-3D film looks really good even in 2D.)  Milla Jovovich doesn’t have to make any special effort to make another good impression as Alice.  Never mind the formula dialogue, characters or plot: the kick here is the same kind of over-the-top, hyper-glossy action visuals that the series has provided so far.  Even ten years after the first film, Afterlife proves that there’s a little bit of juice left in the series.