High Life (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">High Life</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, December 2011) Few plot points are predictable in this oddball Canadian crime comedy/drama: Mis-marketed as a heist thriller on the DVD cover, High Life is a broad look at four young men planning a bank heist in the wild woolly days of 1983 where ATMs were still considered a novelty.  Three of them have done time and all of them are serious drug addicts –naturally, things don’t go as planned.  Darkly funny and lightly dramatic, High Life  still manages to do much with little, partially due to a script that’s above the norm for low-budget film.  Timothy Oliphant headlines the piece but it’s Lee MacDougals’ witty script and Gary Yates’ fast-paced direction that make the film go by even faster.  It’s reminiscent of other well-written crime comedies without being derivative, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome even at less than 80 minutes.  The last half-hour becomes steadily more unpredictable, and not even the violent death of a few characters is enough to erase a generally good impression.  High Life isn’t exactly focused, but it’s interesting throughout, and that’s already quite a feat.  The DVD presents a few short interviews and a quick making-of featurette, but don’t expect too many revelations.

Head of State (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Head of State</strong> (2003)

(On DVD, December 2003) Chris Rock playing a black man running for President of the United States: what else do you need to know about Head of State?  I’m almost sorry that I waited this long to see this film, but then again it probably feels like a very different film post-2008 than upon its release in 2003.  The delicious frisson of “black man running for president of the United States” has now been archived for history with Obama’s election, and there are a number of scenes here that play very differently now.  (Such as Rock’s initial campaign speech to an audience, echoing Obama’s “Fired up!” stump speech.)  But it may be placing far too much weight to consider the film through the lens of real-world politics, since Head of State has the annoying tendency to veer in-between a variety of tone.  Writer/director Rock never quite knows whether his film wants to be a silly black-themed spoof, a clever political satire, rabble-rousing populist agitprop or just another mainstream comedy with the requisite love interest subplot.  As a result, the film feels a bit out of control, with more serious sequences interrupted by sillier fare.  It doesn’t make the film unpleasant to watch (there are more than a good number of laughs here and there) but it makes it feel scattered and less enjoyable than a more polished product may have been.  Rock is immensely likable, and so is the film despite a few excursions in lala-land: Head of State may not fully achieve its potential, but it’s not too bad, and there are a few interesting ideas here to go along with the laughs.

Trespass (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Trespass</strong> (2011)

(Video-on-Demand, December 2011) Once upon a time, maybe in the mid-nineties, a thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and featuring both Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman would have been a sure-fire box-office draw.  But this is late 2011 and the most noteworthy thing about Trespass is how a very limited theatrical run was followed barely two weeks later by a wide DVD release.  So does the film best compare to theatrical thrillers or direct-to-video efforts?  From a visual perspective, it’s clear that this is an A-list effort: Shumacher’s direction is effective, the cinematography is striking and even as the film focuses on house-bound action from dusk till dawn, the filmmakers are able to get a lot of visual energy from limited locations.  Much of Trespass, in fact, feels like a theatre production as a well-off family is threatened by a small gang of home invaders.  But the criminals aren’t united, and everyone has secrets to hide: by the film’s twentieth-minute mark, they’re already shouting at each other in trying to figure out what’s happening.  Nearly hidden behind over-sized glasses, Cage gets a typical “Cage flip-out moment” early on by trying to negotiate with people who aren’t expecting negotiations.  The intensity of the psychological drama can’t be sustained over 90- minutes: by the third act, the action diffuses itself back to B-grade movie levels by going out of the house and a few repeated plot beats while we’re waiting for the various elements previously set up to be used in rapid succession.  Once the shouting is over, it’s a bit easier to see the generic nature of the plot and the plot cheats used to constrain it.  Still, Trespass is a clear notch above much of what’s meant to go quickly from theatres to video –more of a comment on the changing video landscape in the age of instant home video consumption than a particular reflection on the film itself.  If nothing else, it’s an average thriller made by above-average filmmakers and stars.

The Darkest Hour (2011)

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

(In theatres, December 2011) There have been a lot of alien invasion films since fall 2010, so there are plenty of data points in saying that The Darkest Hour is an average example of the form.  Viewers’ appreciation of the film will depend on their own built-in liking for the average alien-invasion plot template in which survivors gradually understand, then fight back against the menace as their numbers dwindle.  What’s noteworthy about this take on the material is the welcome change of scenery offered by modern Moscow, a few visually arresting moments and direction flourishes by Chris Gorak, as well as an alien menace that seems just a bit more original than the average.  Plot-wise, The Darkest Hour has a nice ramping-up from confusion to comprehension to action and the script has a few clever moments in dealing with its own set of rules regarding the alien threat.  These qualities mitigate, but don’t really compensate for a lack of more traditional strengths.  The not-especially-likable characters are relatively dull, and their motivations start iffy –then become nonsensical in propelling the last act.  It’s no great feat of prediction to pick who’s going to die next… and the film’s Russian characters all seem more interesting than the American ones.  The plot is strictly by the numbers, and the dialogues don’t do much to raise the overall level of the film.  Still, as an alien-invasion package we have seen far worse: The Darkest Hour is certainly more optimistic than Skyline and not as aggressively dumb as Battle: Los Angeles.  It may not aspire to Super 8’s character development or Monsters’ thematic depths, but it’s a satisfying straight-ahead example of the form.  It’s the kind of B-movie that meets expectations.

Bunraku (2010)

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

(On DVD, December 2011) Every so often, a visually ambitious film slips through the cracks of distribution and promotion to land almost unannounced on video-store shelves.  From the first few moments, executed with a gorgeous mixture of animation and puppet-theater, it’s obvious that Bunraku is going to be an odd and interesting film.  With its fantasy-world mixture of western and samurai iconography, colourful art direction and dynamic direction, Bunraku certainly looks and feels completely different from your run-of-the-mill film.  Experimental, action-packed, crammed with confident performances, it’s also a movie that aspires to the “hidden gem” section of anyone’s collection, right next to films just as The Fall and Sin City: not perfect, maybe not even accessible to audiences who aren’t predisposed to this kind of genre-blending, but surprisingly satisfying to those to do get it and certainly looks like no other film: writer/director Guy Moshe has put together a lovely piece of art.  Josh Hartnett and Gackt share the lead roles, but Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Kevin McKidd get more remarkable roles as supporting players.  (McKidd is particularly good as an eccentric killer.)  The script certainly could have been tightened up: Demi Moore’s character doesn’t look as if she has anything to do, the dialogue sometimes veers toward the pretentious and there’s a pacing slowdown during the third act of the film.  Nonetheless, Bunraku gains back all of its lost points on sheer visual fun alone, and from its references to other tough-guy movies.  For a film that never really showed widely in North-American theaters, I predict a modest cult following.

Attack the Block (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Attack the Block</strong> (2011)

(On DVD, December 2011) Sometimes, all you need is a good old premise with new characters and setting.  So it is that Attack the Block, one of the most entertaining of 2011’s crop of alien-invasion movies, is basically “aliens invade inner-city London; the local hoods fight back.” It works pretty well, as long as you get over the opening narrative lump of portraying the local hoods realistically.  They’re reprehensible to the affluent white audiences most likely to watch the film, but writer/director Joe Cornish eventually walks the audience back to a tremendous amount of sympathy for his unlikely heroes.  The rest of the film is almost pure fun as the local street gang defends itself from hungry monsters from outer space.  Much of Attack the Block’s charm is pure execution: confident camera work, astonishing performances from a cast of mostly-unknowns (including headliner John Boyega), very clever creature design and a neatly wrapped script that manages to tie nearly everything together.  It’s a very unusual Science Fiction film in that it dares to explore a conventional idea with an unconventional cast of character; it speaks volume about Cornish’s work that by the end of the film, we have gained both understanding and respect for the street gang.  One essential tip: leave the subtitles on, as even the best-meaning audiences will have a bit of trouble understanding the thick South London inner-city street accent.

Street Kings 2: Motor City (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Street Kings 2: Motor City</strong> (2011)

(On DVD, December 2011) The trend toward “cheap but effective direct-to-video sequels related to their predecessor except in title only” continues with this follow-up to 2008’s corrupt-cop drama.  The only constant here is the theme of police corruption, as the action moves to Detroit (just like S.W.A.T.2: Fireight, in fact) and features an entirely different cast of character.  Ray Liotta headlines the picture as an aging police veteran, but the picture eventually revolves around Shawn Hatosy as an eager young cop trying to piece together the truth behind a few deaths in the police force.  It doesn’t turn out cheerfully, especially given what he has to lose.  The bleak conclusion is one of Motor City’s low points, but it caps a fairly average effort that seem well in-line with many recent direct-to-video thriller “sequels”.  The visual polish of the digitally-shot film is up to most standards, with a few directorial flourishes by DTV veteran Chris Fisher and stylistic touches that are a bit more ambitious that what the picture strictly needed.  Detroit, in its lapsed glory, has a large presence as the setting of the picture and this influences leads to some interesting choices as the film focuses on American muscle-car cinematography.  It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the familiar story deflates a bit after a promising first half: By the time the third act descends in increasing nihilism and abrupt ending, it’s unclear why, Motor City needs to be told or watched if it’s going to be so bleakly routine without any other redeeming qualities.  At least the film itself struggles to a certain level of competence, even though it doesn’t really know what to do once it has covered most of the basic requirements of an acceptable film.  The recent revival of DTV films to a level of quality roughly equal to the lower-tier of theatrical features is a welcome improvement over the historical standard, but there’s still a way to go before fully erasing the DTV stigma; it will start once the stories are just as interesting as what we can pay to see in theatres.  The DVD contains a large number of extra features that, by letting its filmmakers speak, make Motor City appear more pretentious than if you’d just watched the feature alone.

The Hit List (2011)

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

(On DVD, December 2011) If nothing else, this direct-to-video thriller has an intriguing premise: What if, discussing a very bad day at the local bar, you accidentally made a deal with a hit-man willing to take care of your hit-list?  Unsurprisingly, the film’s execution can never quite match the development of the premise: Shot on a budget in Spokane, The Hit List looks and feels like the newest digitally-shot direct-to-video effort: acceptable cinematography, two or three big action sequences, and some directing flair.  It’s in the limp script that the film’s limited ambitions become clearer.  The protagonist is meant to be portrayed by Cole Hauser as an everyman pushed beyond his limits, but he initially comes across as a schmuck and never recovers from this initial impression.  Cuba Gooding Jr. impresses as a grizzled hitman, although though his performance seems erratic and his dialogue feels forced.  The script shies away from its most interesting implications, and wastes time showcasing an overlong, mean-spirited and largely unnecessary police station shoot-out.  The lacking quality of the script, from its overreaching dialogues to its lack of thematic depth to the graceless way it moves its plot pieces, is the film’s biggest disappointment: While it tries to ape a bit of Collateral’s impact, The Hit List never really rises above its mediocre execution.  The ideas are there, but the polish isn’t… and as any good hit-man will tell you, execution is far more important than intentions.

Blitz (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Blitz</strong> (2011)

(On DVD, December 2011) If ever you find yourself wondering what sets Jason Statham apart from other actors specializing in action movies, look no further than the extra interest and energy he brings to this otherwise fairly routine police thriller.  A pure product of the British film industry, Blitz it technically slick and actually benefits from its London location: Compared to other comparable LA-based crime thrillers, it’s a welcome change of pace to see British policemen at work in a different environment.  As far as the plot is concerned, though, it’s the usual psycho-cop-killer routine, with an implausibly super-powered antagonist and policemen unable to counter him.  Added spice comes from the subplots; I assume that they reflect material from the eponymous Ken Bruen book on which the film is based.  The problem is that subplots that fit within a series book aren’t necessarily fit for transposition within a standalone film.  The best/worst example of this concerns a subplot featuring an arresting performance by Zawe Ashton: It’s a great piece of drama that would be integral to a TV series, but it doesn’t fit within the thriller framework of the film itself and, as such, doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.  If you don’t know that Blitz is adapted from an ongoing series, you may have trouble figuring out the extent of the characters’ developing relationships.  The fall-back position is the vicious police drama as headlined by Statham; never mind the fascistic position taken by the film’s “cop-killer versus killer-cop” attitude (everything can be blamed back to political correctness, as is usually the tendency with films of this sort)… it just seems like the kind of easy ending tacked-on to make everyone feel better.  As a film, Blitz isn’t too bad.  But it has a few rough edges that Statham’s typical performance can’t completely save.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, December 2011) Trying to review this film on its own is impossible given how recently I have read the Stieg Larsson book and seen the Swedish film adaptation.  It also doesn’t help that the American version seems so intent on faithfully adapting the book and taking its cues from the previous film: There’s no denying that the American version is good, but it’s so similar that the tendency is to focus on the areas of difference.  (Amazingly enough, through, the American version is 100% as Swedish as it’s ever been, taking place in Sweden with Swedish characters to the point of having the actors play with slight Swedish accents.)  Budget certainly makes a difference: Where the Swedish version had a scene at Millennium magazine with half a dozen staffers, the American version has the feel of a working magazine office.  Where the Swedish version held its outdoors scenes to a minimum, the American version indulges in scene-setting.  But don’t assume that all the edges have been filed away in an attempt to be audience-friendly: There is a least as much crude violence here, and perhaps a bit more nudity.  The bleak coda of the book has been kept over the Swedish film’s more hopeful finale, even as an expensive side-trip during the Swedish conclusion has been pared back for the American one.  Director David Fincher is a smart filmmaker, but even his talent and experience doesn’t seem to add all that much to this adaptation when compared to the Swedish one.  At least, there’s no arguing about the main casting is correct: Daniel Craig makes for a good Mikael Blomvkist, whereas Mara Rooney is almost as good as Noomi Rapace as Lizbeth Salander.  While the end result has a few flaws in pacing, most of them can be attributed to the book itself rather than any special flaw in the adaptation (which does dispense with some extraneous material, such as the carnal relationship between Blomvkist and one of the Vengers)  The main question about the film isn’t as much “Is it good?”  as “Why does it exist?” The Swedish version was good, but the American version isn’t that much better to justify having a director like David Fincher work-for-hire on it.  At some point; why bother?  Still, it may be best to focus on the idea that, for once, the American version is just as respectable as its foreign counterpart.  Small comfort, but we might as well take what we get.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, December 2011) The Mission: Impossible series has never been about realism, and this fourth entry continues to deliver the kind of spying-fantasy action that the franchise does so well.  While it would be correct to bemoan the series’ lack of real-world themes or relevance, it’s also missing the point: Mission Impossible is about featuring visually dynamic action directors, giving Tom Cruise a rock-solid star vehicle, and having just enough plot to run through a series of action/heist set-pieces.  It works pretty well: Brad Bird’s live-action debut as a director show his skill in handling complex sequences mixing together wide-screen locales around the world, high-tech equipment (which, hilariously enough, always seems to be failing), movie-slick stars and a good sense of rhythm.  The series has been good at showcasing innovative action sequences and Ghost Protocol does well in setting a chase inside a sandstorm and then later on a fight in an automated parking garage.  What’s somewhat new is a tenuous amount of continuity with the previous installment: just enough to give the actors something to do during the dialogue scenes, but also in terms of visual continuity, much stronger between the third and fourth film than any of the previous entries.  While Ghost Protocol doesn’t have a villain as strong as Philip Seymour Hoffman in the third installment, it’s good enough to give a little bit more of what has been good about the series so far.  While Cruise is now pushing credibility as an action hero (the next ten years are going to be tough for him as he’ll have to let go of his boyish grin), the Mission: Impossible series is still his most reliable, most audience-friendly franchise.  Expect another installment within a few years… and expect it to be decent.

Transylmania (2009)

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

(On DVD, December 2011) There is a correct state of mind in trying to appreciate this film, and it includes the words “Stoner college comedies are pretty bad and we shouldn’t expect much from them”.  Once you’d gone over that particular conditioning exercise (and maybe watched a few terrible Friedberg/Seltzer “comedies” as a reminder of how bad the sub-genre can be), then Transylmania isn’t all that bad.  Oh, it’s still not very good: Not only is it a sequel to the two National Lampoon Dorm Daze comedies in which a bunch of American students go study abroad in a foreboding Transylvanian university set in an age-old castle, it’s rife with dull dialogue, contrived situations, unimpressive humor and one strikingly out-of-place gory sequence.  Still, there’s quite a bit more artistic ambition here than in most of the big-budget “concept comedies” you’re likely to catch in multiplexes: The motif of doubles (either through twins, possession or doppelgangers) leads the script to some fairly sophisticated farce-plotting, whereas some of the cinematography is surprisingly good for the kind of college comedy this is billed as: The filmmakers obviously had a few higher goals in mind in trying to ape German expressionism (among other classic influences) and blending it with dope-fueled inanity.  Among other performances, Jennifer Lyons is adorable as a cheerleader possessed by an ancient witch, allowing her to alternate between an airhead and a vamp; Musetta Vander is also remarkable with a strong action-heroine performance as a vampire hunter.  If you’re not convinced, have a look at the DVD supplements, which features an entertaining commentary, a good making-of featurette, and alternate sequences that are just as interesting as the material that ended in the film.  While this won’t be a film for the ages, it’s funny and good-natured enough to leave no ill feelings.

Stan Helsing (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Stan Helsing</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, December 2011) There’s an intriguing concept at the heart of this spoof parody film updating the Van Helsing legend (and terrible 2004 movie) to modern times and just-as-modern monsters taken from the horror genre.  Concepts don’t make a movie, though, especially not when it’s backed with a dull script and a low budget.  The result is a movie that’s bad by almost every standard: Amateurishly written, staged with mediocre competence, put together in a botched fashion (even allowing for the low budget)… it’s just not very good.  But having survived a feverish back-to-back-to-back viewing of far worse spoof comedies as appetizer, I can say that there are a few things in Stan Helsing that make it rise above the muck of Wayans and Friedberg/Seltzer zero-effort zero-result trash.  For one thing, the actors seem determined to give it their best.  Here, the spotlight belongs to Desi Lydic for stealing nearly every scene she has as an adorable bubblehead, whereas Steve Howey is fine as the title character.  Limited by its PG-13 rating, Stan Helsing also manages to avoid much of the over-the-top grossness, violence and mean-spiritedness of several of its “unrated/extreme” contemporaries.  The result may indeed not be very good, but it’s not particularly offensive, and even occasionally charming in its earnest goofiness.  Having a karaoke contest to decide the fate of a monster-ridden town sounds like a terrible idea, but darn if I didn’t smile like an idiot as the monsters were singing “S-T-A-N” and promising the worst torture to the lead character to the tune of the Village People’s Y-M-C-A.  Dumb stuff, but writer/director Bo Zenga has a few solid instincts –I wonder what he could do with a better script and a bigger budget.  I’m not recommending the film… merely pointing out that it’s nowhere near the bottom of the heap when it comes to spoof comedies.  The DVD edition has a number of disappointing extras: The DVD commentary is practically useless (other than some making-of details on how to operate within a low budget) and many of the extended scenes show the wisdom of cutting the film down to its PG-13 rating.

Meet the Spartans (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Meet the Spartans</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, December 2011) Watching Friedberg/Seltzer “parody movies” is an exercise in curious masochism, such has their entire body of work been so embarrassing to date.  Meet the Spartans has an unchallenged reputation as one of the worst box-office-number-one movie in recent memory (Fact: It won over Rambo as the top-selling movie in the US upon release in January 2008) and viewing it merely confirms its standing.  Even critics wary of superlatives won’t have a hard time saying that this is the worst so-called spoof comedy on record so far.  A witless recreation of key scenes from 300 with added bodily fluids, celebrity references and cartoon violence, Meet the Spartans struggles ineptly to even deliver smiles.  Relentlessly stupid, irrevocably dated to 2007 and never too sure when it has ground a concept into the ground (the “Pit-of-Death” sequence goes on for five minutes), this film isn’t amusing even to those who thought 300 was an overrated piece of pap aimed at teenagers.  Almost painful in its ineptness, Meet the Spartans doesn’t really understand what humor is, and seems happy to substitute the same tired elements (grossness, celebrities and violence, usually mixed together).  There’s no cleverness to the commentary on 300 (forget about discussing the fascistic elements when even the jokes at the original film’s unintentional homoeroticism seem like mean-spirited homophobia) and no conceptual humor at throwing together pop-star abuse in an antique context.  Meet the Spartans doesn’t work as a parody; it doesn’t work as absurdity and it doesn’t even work as caricature.  It just doesn’t work, and its aggressiveness in repulsing its audience seems a key piece of why it doesn’t.  I have seen several low-budget straight-to-video comedies that were funnier than this.  Struggling to find nice things to say about this film, it’s true that Sean Maguire makes a convincing replacement for Gerard Butler and that the production design is often instructive in showing how to cheaply re-create 300’s distinctive aesthetics.  Otherwise, the unrated DVD edition has a few bonus features that are better than the movie itself: The “Tour the set” featurette is sporadically amusing, whereas the commentary track is arguably funnier than the main feature as actors and filmmakers have a good time.  Tellingly, though, everyone seems repulsed by the film’s grosser moments… leaving open the question as to who thought those moments were a good idea.  No wonder Friedberg/Seltzer have earned such widespread hatred in the movie-fans community.

Extreme Movie (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Extreme Movie</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, December 2011) A sketch comedy about teen sex sounds like a dubious prospect for more than one reason: Sketch comedies aren’t that common for good reasons; sex comedy in American cinema is usually an arousal-free mixture of guilt and vulgarity; and American teens aren’t known for discriminating tastes when it comes to that material.  Extreme Movie confirms all three problems and adds a few of its own.  Hobbled by a low-low-low budget (1.2$M) and even lower comic standards, the film is very loosely based on a high-school sex-education class and the issues students confront at home.  While some of the sketches gets a few points for originality and concepts that leave hum-drum reality behind (such as the Weird Science parody, or the Lincoln-obsessed teen who ends up inventing a time machine to fulfill his fetish) and a few other moments have known actors (Michael Cera, Frankie Muniz) gamely submitting themselves to the requirements of the script, much of Extreme Movie is just one lame gag after another, heavily dosed with the kind of embarrassment that seems to be the norm for discussions of teenage sexuality in a comic context.  Heavily biased in favour of a male-centric view of sex (only one sketch revolves around a teenage girl), which is another problem in itself, Extreme Movie does itself no favour by jettisoning most of its accumulated character development every five minutes or so –some of the film’s most amusing jokes are call-backs to previous events.  The telling lack of nudity (at one or two specific exceptions which are probably specific to the “unrated” DVD) hints at a broader problem about the contradictory impulses dictating any discussion of teenage sexuality in North America: the underlying puritanical social impulses are about shame, whereas the broader customer culture is about desire –but does commentary on this film warrant deeper introspection of this issue?  In any case, the “unrated” DVD supplementary material isn’t particularly interesting, although you can almost feel some sympathy for the filmmakers as they describe how to work within a budget that’s a tiny fraction of what most Hollywood productions require.