(On DVD, February 2012) There’s a lot to dislike about Vanishing on 7th Street, but before truly giving the film the critical savaging it deserves, let’s take a moment to point out what does work: Much of the first fifteen minutes. As our lead characters discover themselves (nearly) alone in a deserted Detroit when people have all spontaneously disappeared leaving behind their clothes, there’s an aura of mystery over the film’s premise and a few effective visuals along the way. An enigma is set up, promising an explanation. But, as soon as the film clumsily jumps “three days later”, doubts appear about its good intentions. As it soon becomes obvious, Vanishing on 7th Street isn’t interested in answers. In fact, its lack of interest extends to such things as internal consistency, continuity or compelling characters. Not only are there no answers, but the mechanics of what’s happening are wildly inconsistent, and often hand-waved with unknowables. Laws of physics change, and the plot rules are blurry enough that viewers stop caring about what’s happening on-screen. It’s not even clear that there’s a threat of sorts –or what the shadow figures are doing, exactly. Once dark jousts with darker as a cinematography motif, it’s hard not to roll eyes and laugh at the ineptness of the results. By the middle of the film, the characters are so irritating that they might as well die sooner than later: I have seldom been less interested in Thandie Newton than in this film, and even an energetic performance by John Leguizamo (as a character who comes back from the dead for no reason whatsoever) isn’t enough to redeem the film. By the time the credits wrap up, Vanishing on 7th Street earns a one-way trip to the “bad straight-to-DVD horror” shelf. As far as the extras go, the half-hour interview with the director confirms that the filmmakers had no interest in offering answers; left unknown is their lack of ability is delivering anything more compelling than a first-act mystery.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) The fact that this ten-episode television series exists at all is remarkable: Few would have predicted that the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series could have been adaptable to the screen with any degree of faithfulness –let alone become a compulsively watchable success in the process. Featuring a credible fantasy world, continent-spanning intrigue, scores of characters, nudity, gore and complex family backstories on a TV series’ limited budget, this first season of Game of Thrones sets the stage for epic developments, keeps the essence of the book and manages to deliver a striking ten hours’ worth of entertainment in the process. Sean Bean makes for a compelling anchor as Ned Stark, a good man woefully out of his depth once thrown in the capital’s palace intrigue, but it’s Peter Dinklage who steals the show as Tyrion, perhaps the most self-aware character in a cast of a hundred. The amount of sex and violence is such that the series could only come from HBO, as is the patience through which the story is developed. The flip-side of such faithfulness to the 700-page book are a few pacing lulls, especially for viewer unwilling or impatient to piece together the slowly-developed back-story. Still, the result is worth the sit. The limits of the budget sometime show, especially in large-scale sequences, but the result on-screen still works well. The nudity, gore and sexual content often straddle the line from gratuitous to essential: It does affirm Game of Thrones‘ more adult scope, but some sequences combine nudity with exposition in ways that may be more audacious than successful. Still, the overall result is the beginning chapter of a fantasy series with scope and power. I hope ratings and DVD sales will be good enough to warrant enough latter installments to do justice to the rest of Martin’s as-of-yet-uncompleted series.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) I’m not usually a good audience for the kind of low-budget, low-stakes working-class dramas exemplified by Jack Goes Boating. I like genre stories with imagination, high stakes, some action and upbeat humor… not slow-paced dramas in which self-destructive characters to their best to ruin their lives. Yet there’s something compelling in Jack Goes Boating; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sad-sack performance is oddly likable, even set within a directorial debut that doesn’t try to glamourize his character. In tackling intimate issues about budding romance and confronting it to long-term commitment issues, the script confronts issues commonly left unsaid, and there’s a quiet elegance to the way it throws together plot strands in a universe essentially made out of four people. (You just want to invite two of them home, feed them dinner and tell them everything is going to be all right. The other two can go stew in their own self-pity.) Adapted from a theater play, Jack Goes Boating isn’t the most dynamic film out there… but it reaches its objectives, hints at a few profound truths and sticks in mind a while longer than expected.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Teen comedies starring Michael Cera may look the same, but they’re not always the same. Exception made of the superlative Scott Pilgrim, Youth in Revolt is a bit better than the others: Cera can here depend on a clever script and an amusing “evil personae” plot device to extend his typical screen presence beyond the usual, and the film can be surprisingly unexpected at times. The story of a dweebish young teenager trying to win over a girl while acting as delinquently as possible, Youth in Revolt distinguishes itself though witty dialogue, unexpected turns, full characterization and oddball details –it particularly flips over a number of teen-movie plot devices in showing dastardly plans blowing up in the protagonist’s face, doesn’t pander to empty morality and uses a wider vocabulary in its witty dialogue than most other similar teen movies. While Youth in Revolt can’t escape a certain amount of aimlessness in its plotting, it makes up for it with a good conclusion and a clever use of some actors. It’s off-beat enough to fit within the Juno frame of reference, but not derivative enough to be stuck in it. Give it a try, especially if you think you’ve reached the end of your tolerance for the Cera personae.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Critics weren’t kind to this remake of the 1941 horror-classic and, up to a certain point, it’s easy to see why: There isn’t much of a story here, nor too many chills. The tone can be inconsistent, and some moments feel more ridiculous than anything else. Additionally, the winks and nods to horror fans sometimes lead the story into small dead-ends (eg; the silver cane). Still, The Wolfman has a lot going for it in the visual department, from an effective gothic atmosphere to Joe Johnston’s often-clever direction. The makeup and special effects are used wisely and the cinematography can be adequately lugubrious at times. While not up to Tim Burton’s standards (You should see The Wolfman in a double-bill with Sleepy Hollow), there is a lot to like in the film’s visual presentation, which is a notch over the usual horror film. Unfortunately, the assets are often undermined by gratuitous gore taking down the film’s moment-to-moment impact from high-art to low-schlock, and there is a sense that the straightforward narrative isn’t up to the setting it inhabits. (Much like Anthony Hopkins seems to be slumming in a one-dimensional role.) Oh well; at least Benicio del Toro and Hugo Weaving can be compelling to watch, and if viewers get bored, there’s usually a nice image every few moments to keep things interesting.
(On DVD, February 2012) This film certainly isn’t bad, but as a biography of Carlos “the Jackal” Ramirez, it should have been quite a bit better. Part of the problem, as discovered while reading about this two-hours-and-a-half film, is that it’s a cut version of an even longer five-hours TV series. This certainly explains the inconsistent rhythm of the movie, which sputters over lengthy periods of his life while focusing endlessly on much shorter sequences (one hour on a single terrorist operation here, five minutes on a single seduction/recruitment scene there) and ending with a long and drawn-out epilogue. The result is a biopic that lacks focus and can’t really deliver a coherent look at its subject’s life in-between episodes. This being said, the film does deliver on a few of its promises: The sense of being thrown back in time is convincing, and it’s hard to over-praise Edgar Martinez in the lead role –especially considering the physical changes required in portraying the fat and dissolute latter-day Carlos. At times, though, Carlos feels like a film for people who already know all about his life history and just want a visual illustration: perhaps victim of the show-to-movie cutting process, it often feels as if we’re not even given the bare minimum of information in order to fully appreciate what’s happening. The result is a bit of a muddle: A long sit and yet a film that feels as if it has a lot of missing parts.
(On DVD, February 2012) Anyone who chooses to see this film based on the fact that it’s “from the special effects team of Independence Day” has little moral recourse to complain about a weak script (which is supposed to portray a subjective story, but ends up including sequences with third-parties), tepid directing and a film that seems largely designed to showcase special-effects sequences. Proudly and loudly wearing its low-budget pedigree (with occasional self-aware smirks at its own limitations), Coronado won’t impress anyone looking for a compelling dramatic experience. Real-world verisimilitude isn’t one of Coronado‘s strong points as chunks of the film are deeply dumb, whether it’s the US selling advanced V-22 Osprey prototypes to rebel forces or a fighter jet firing a missile on a wooden bridge. On the other hand, it’s not a film to dismiss lightly: Despite the lame dialogues, badly-built scenes and unconvincing actors, it’s also a film that consciously attempts to show an adventure the likes of which are rarely seen in bigger-budgeted pictures. Kristin Dattilo’s grinning turn as the heroine looking for her deceiving husband deep in a Central America country is also better than what you may expect from such a film. Reportedly shot for a miserly budget of only five million dollars, Coronado uses special effects to stretch the limits of its storytelling to a scale that is usually attempted by films with at least ten times the resources. The illusion isn’t seamless (no points will be awarded for spotting what’s CGI and what’s not) but it’s ambitious, and it allows the filmmakers the freedom to tell a much bigger story than is the norm for direct-to-video efforts. The DVD is a bit lame for skimping on the English subtitles, but the rest of the features show the resourcefulness of the production team in using special effects to extend a low-budget production. The best audiences for this film are those who can appreciate a bit of film-making ingenuity, and be generous enough to see what the film intended rather than what’s on-screen.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Ever since Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarden Cop, the family-friendly comedy pitting muscleman against kids seems to be a mandatory step in the career of aging action actors. From Dwayne Johnson’s The Tooth Fairy to Vin Diesel’s The Pacifier, the results usually aren’t very good, falling short of delivering bone-crunching action while not bringing anything new to the family film genre. Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door is much of the same. While Chan fans will occasionally get a reminder about his considerable physical skills (starting from the opening archive footage taken from other movies), the film itself isn’t particularly interesting. The unthreatening kid-spy plot beats are all obvious, the jokes are weak, the action sequences are tepid and the script is more dumb than compelling. Chan himself is far too old to play the pseudo-nebbish man courting an attractive mother-of-three, and parts of the villain’s dastardly plot could be flipped over to become a force for good without too much trouble. Still, The Spy Next Door isn’t a complete loss: Chan remains a charming presence and some of the action sequences show some of his usual flair. Still, there isn’t much to miss here…
(On Cable TV, February 2012) Reviewing some movies can also be about taking stock of one’s place in life, and I mention this solely because I suspect that as a new dad, I’m a bit more receptive than usual to a slightly-sarcastic comedy about pregnancy. Here, it’s almost a relief to see Jennifer Lopez take a step back from being a celebrity gossip object to focus on a roundly comic role as a baby-crazy woman who ends up meeting her perfect match shortly after artificial impregnation. This being said, The Back-Up Plan isn’t a particularly good film: The plot threads are obvious, the scenes plays out as they’re expected to, socially-acceptable morals are reaffirmed and cute animals are used as plot devices. But viewers with recent experience with pregnancy may want to tilt their appreciation upward, if only in sympathy. Even as an over-romanticized romantic comedy about people enjoying vast New York apartments and lifestyles on unclear financial footing, The Back-Up Plan is innocuous and even compelling at times. Lopez turns in a good comic performance, and some of the supporting players earn their shares of laughs. Not great, not bad, but a whole lot better if you’re rocking a newborn in your arms as you watch at low volume.
(On Cable TV, February 2012) I haven’t soured on the whole found-footage sub-genre yet, but I sure wish they’d find a different ending than “they all died at the end”. (This isn’t a spoiler, given that the film starts with a cute “we’ve been trying to figure out whether this is real or not” notice.) This being said, Troll Hunter isn’t a bad example of the form at all. As student filmmakers befriend a tough man who proves to be a professional troll hunter (Otto Jespersen, in a striking role), what the handheld camera captures becomes stranger, bigger and more thrilling. A monster-movie in shakycam mode, Troll Hunter delivers on its promises: Big trolls, government conspiracies, well-used special effects, a few good action sequences and a found-footage frame that credibly doesn’t break character too often. (There aren’t many instances where you wonder why they’re still shooting, which is typically one of the sub-genre’s biggest flaws.) Add to that the strangeness and beauty of the Norwegian landscapes, and you’ve got a pretty good film experience. This makes the coda even more unsatisfying, as it seems willing to throw away a perfectly good happy ending in favor of a downbeat conclusion that deliberately writes itself in a corner. Too bad, but that’s really not enough to take away anything from Troll Hunter except a too-slavish adherence to found-footage conventions.
(On DVD, February 2012) The most remarkable thing about Angel-A is how atypical it feels when compared to the rest of writer/director Luc Besson’s filmography. You’d have to dig back to the eighties (past the most recent bad action movies and older better action/SF films) to find something like it, perhaps The Big Blue. Angel-A begins by showing small-time hustler down and out in Paris, about to throw himself off a bridge. But then! A mysterious woman appears and forces our protagonist to take control of his own life. The rest of the film unfolds as a black-and-white dream set in picturesque Paris, as protagonist and guardian angel solve their problems and fall in love. Plot-wise, it’s thin. Visually, however, it’s absolutely gorgeous: The black-and-white cinematography is nearly perfect at capturing Paris at its most inspiring, and the fairytale atmosphere helps a lot in establishing Angel-A‘s own reality. In other hands, it could have been a pretentious art-house mess. In Besson’s grip, however, it turns into a relatively entertaining piece of ambitious popular cinema. Hardly perfect, no: the plot contrivances are numerous and those who think Besson can’t quite write female characters will have more material to consider here. Jamel Debbouze, far better-known as a comedian, is a bit of a revelation here as the pathetic protagonist. Unfortunately, Rie Rasmussen isn’t the best choice as Angela; her delivery (in her third language) is mealy-mouthed and her physique doesn’t add that much to the film. Still, Angel-A is a remarkable piece of work for its cinematography alone; Besson fans and detractors owe it to themselves to have a look, if only to show that he can do something else than dumb anti-establishment action-comedies.
(On DVD, February 2012) Being a newly-minted dad is the best feeling in the world, but holding a squirming, sometimes-crying two-weeks-old isn’t so good for movie-watching. Eventually, I figured that the most appropriate film to watch while rocking back-and-forth would be a narration-less documentary about babies that I would set on fast-forward and appreciate without sound. I suspect that Babies is one of those films that is enhanced by being at a certain place in life: I probably wouldn’t have been so endeared to the stories of four babies from around the world (Namibia; Mongolia; Tokyo; San Francisco) had I not been cradling my own daughter in my arms at the time. Still, Babies achieves its own objectives: By showing the first year of life of four very different babies, it’s enough to tell us about the differences and the commonalities between every one of us. By opposing third-world laissez-faire to first-world overprotectiveness, it suggests that all kinds of experiences are equally valid in bringing up baby. Depending solely on natural sound rather than trying to impose a redundant narration, Babies also chooses to rely heavily on spectacular cinematography: from a purely visual standpoint, there is a lot to appreciate here, especially in third-world locations. A few moments of humor also enliven the film, perhaps the funniest being a goat drinking up a Mongolian baby’s bathwater. While Babies doesn’t feel particularly deep or insightful, it does manage to reach and maybe even exceed its own goals, and the result is perfect for a new-parent’s gift basket.