(On-demand Video, March 2012) It would be tempting to dismiss Battle of the Bulbs (not unfairly) as being too saccharine, family-centric and unwilling to fully make use of its premise as meaner-spirited filmmakers may have pushed it. The film’s central conflict is a neighborly feud over Christmas decorations; it wouldn’t take much to push this limit to very dark and very funny extremes. Battle of the Bulbs, however, keeps things civil and restrained, up until the moment where the two neighbors have a chat and decide to end it. But come on: this is a Hallmark Family Channel movie-of-the-week holiday special… it would take a real Grinch to grump against the result. It’s meant as light and broadly silly family-friendly fare, and generally succeeds as such. It may be low-budget, but it presents a nicely textured portrait of suburban family life (including a messy house) and wraps up everything in the holiday spirit. Battle of the Bulbs isn’t good enough to warrant a viewing at any time but during December, but it should be innocuous enough to be good background viewing while putting up the holiday tree.
(On cable TV, March 2012) The media landscape has changed so much in thirty years that there was a real risk that Videodrome, in tackling the TV anxieties of the early eighties, would feel fatally outdated three decades later. In some ways, that’s true: at a time where gory execution video-clips are never farther than a Google search away, the premise of satellite channel piracy uncovering a snuff TV show doesn’t quite have the same power to make audiences shiver. The average moviegoer now has effortless access to a vastly more complicated media diet in which can be blended the worst perversions: Videodrome really scratches the surface of the horrors out there as we realize that we now all have access to the same. But there’s a lot more to Videodrome than a treatise on the dangers of satellite TV and a charming throwback to early-eighties techno-jargon: As the body horror of the film’s second half kicks in, director David Cronenberg (who, a long time ago, still made horror movies) truly uncaps the techno-surrealism that still makes the film worth a look. Videodrome still deserves its cult status as an unnerving piece of bizarre horror, perhaps even more so now that cathode-ray tubes are receding in the past. The visuals, as imperfect as they were in a pre-CGI age, still have a sting and the shattering of the protagonist’s reality is good for a few kernels of terror. What really doesn’t work all that well is the last act of the film, which disarms the film’s increasing sense of paranoia and ends up burying itself in pointlessness. Videodrome, even today, is more interesting for its potential rather than its execution. Oh well; at least James Woods is captivating as the protagonist, and Toronto gets a pretty good turn in the background. A stronger third act would have been a good way to wrap up the film, but as a cult classic, it probably doesn’t need any improvement.
(On-demand Video, March 2012) As honorable it is to try to find something nice about every film, no matter how low-budget or low-imagination they can be, sometimes there’s no going around saying it outright: Cross is a bad, bad movie, and the fact that it’s interestingly flawed doesn’t make it any better. At least its first five minutes won’t create any false hopes: From the first moments, the awkward attempts at humor, the cringe-worthy macho bluster, the incompetent direction, the terrible dialogue, the low-quality no-originality pseudo-comics introduction, the subtitles standing in lieu of characterization… everything about this film stinks of bad ideas piled on top of each other. The plot is a lame variation on overused urban horror clichés, and the development has trouble making it feel interesting. The presence of Vinnie Jones as the antagonist brings to mind the similar The Bleeding, except that that Cross has even more macho attitude and even less charm. The film’s most thought-provoking facet is the casting: For a film having reportedly cost a mere two million dollars (and looking like it), how did it attract name actors such as Jones, Michael Duncan Clarke, Jake Busey (who does get a few of the film’s better lines) and Tom Sizemore? We may never know, but the result really doesn’t do anyone any favors. Cross often strays into unintentional comedy, but in such a plodding way that it’s more a pitiful sight than a guilty pleasure. It introduces a flurry of characters but barely make use of a few of them. It aims for macho swagger without having the substance to back it up. In many ways, Cross attempts tricks that would work in better movies, but is so badly-made that the attempts all backfire and make the film feel even cheaper than it is. The focus on meaningless violence, big guns, scantily-dressed women, muscle cars and comic-book-inspired fantasy elements make Cross feel juvenile in ways that most kids’ movies aren’t, and it’s hard to respect the results. This is as low as filmmaking can go and if it isn’t, I don’t want to hear about it.
Bantam Spectra, 2012 reprint of 1998 original, 1040 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57990-1
Reading a long and tightly-plotted series of books isn’t like other kinds of reading experiences. Unlike loose series of novels, a fantasy saga spread over five books (so far) with dozens of characters and almost as many subplots demands commitment, patience and indulgence. In fact, considering the experience of reading a fantasy series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice like a long-term relationship makes a whole lot of sense, especially in considering what to say about the second volume in a series.
The first volume is all about boundless expectations, the thrills of seeing something new and the giddiness at what’s going right. A Game of Thrones spent so much time introducing its gigantic cast of characters, discussing eight thousand years of back-story, establishing its harsh and unforgiving tone (most notably in getting rid of its most honorable character) that readers couldn’t help but be enthralled at the result. With second volume A Clash of Kings, however, the long-term relationship is starting to set and some of the charm is becoming an established pattern.
If nothing else, the novel does deliver on the mayhem promised at the end of the first volume. The king is dead, there’s considerable turmoil surrounding his succession and no less than five kings are proposing themselves as the rightful heir to the throne. (How complex is this series’ plot? Well, consider that one of the self-designated heirs is on another continent and remains unknown to the other four.) After a first section in which it becomes clear that there will be no gentle alliances, the remainder of the book sees the four pretenders fight it out. Westeros is scoured (peasants don’t have a good time during wars), various dirty tricks take place, fortresses fall and Martin once again presents his battles in an elliptical, highly subjective point of view. One major battle midway through the book is averted through a shocking death that still remains unexplained by the end of the book (one of the hallmarks of the series are its longstanding mysteries), whereas the results of the second half of another major battle late in the book is announced through an unreliable character’s ranting. Fans of battle action may want to confirm their impression that the series is not meant to wallow in lengthy fight sequences (although there’s a rather good naval engagement near the end of the book.)
But never mind the broad strokes of the war of succession: What about the characters? Long-form series such as this one live or die based on their cast of characters and whether we want to follow them along. With nine viewpoint characters and about ten times that number of secondary speaking characters (and who knows how many named ones), there’s a lot of ground of cover. Poor Arya gets hauled from one part of the continent to another, gradually regaining agency in the second half of the book. Jon Snow goes trekking in the Great White North. Tyrion Lannister gets the chance to prove how clever he actually is. Theon Greyjoy gets less and less likable. Mom-and-daughter Catelyn and Sansa Stark don’t do much but look on as other people do interesting things around them. Meanwhile, far away, Daenerys Targaryen solidifies her power base and plots her return. There are, mind you, a few significant plot developments. Another king dies in mysterious circumstances; a mighty safe haven is burned down; two pretenders to the throne clash leaving one triumphant; and the Starks lose one major engagement, with several supporting characters killed in the process.
More significantly, the series’ mostly hands-off approach to magic gets a bit less hands-off in this volume. Characters comment that magic spells are becoming more effective; the best-informed of them suspect that dragons have something to do with it. Reading between the lines, a red priestess seems to be raising all kinds of hell in the parts of the story our viewpoint characters can’t see, whereas the North’s zoo of bad critters seems to be poised to bring even more misery to the Seven Kingdoms. Slowly, the action is reaching a boiling point.
And “slowly” is a key word in this case. One of the particularities of long-form series is that they favor depth and scope over pacing and intensity. We do not experience these stories as a series of events as much as we live with the characters as the events occur around them. The difference is as significant as watching a long-running TV show over a feature film: The ten-twenty hours of a series make up for a radically different pace from the energy of a two-hour film, and so Martin’s series is meant to be read leisurely. There’s little instant gratification as plot threads and unanswered questions multiply: there is, however, a far stronger sense of identification with characters and sympathy at their odyssey. This is a different kind of reading experience, and Martin’s better at building up the atmosphere required for this kind of narrative than most of his contemporaries.
If it means that readers have to be patient and enjoy the trip rather than being in a hurry to get to destination, then so be it. The sequels will tell if the journey is worth the trip –in the meantime, it’s best to be swept along with the plot and make frequent reference to the cast of characters at the end of the book. Because, as in any relationship, you get as much from Martins’ series are you’re willing to invest in it. With A Song of Ice and Fire so far, Martin’s achievement has been to present a hugely detailed universe that rewards intense attention. Even small characters can live fully and die (dis)honorably in the back-pages. Such depth isn’t common, nor can it be found easily in smaller narratives.
While even the kindest reviewers will note that A Clash of King may not carry the same punch as its predecessor (fewer set-pieces, repetition of effects, a sense of languid rhythm are all fair charges against this second volume), it does an effective job at carrying the story forward, delivering on a few promises and setting up further mayhem later during the series. That’s good enough for most middle-volumes of series, and when it’s done as skillfully on a chapter-by-chapter basis as it is here, there’s little cause to complain. A long and complex series is what readers asked for in reading this sequel, and A Clash of Kings delivers in that regard.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) There really isn’t anything new to this romantic comedy, but it’s a small triumph of capable execution. From the whip-taut dialogue of the opening sequence to its cheerful ending, Friends with Benefits is a clever self-aware take on the romantic-comedy formula. The fast-paced dialogue makes up a lot of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot to be said about the hipness of the film’s assumptions as coupled to the solidity of its morals. It’s a bright and cheerful comedy, funny except when it becomes convinced that it has to be serious for a while. Justin Timberlake adds to his growing repertoire of thankless roles, whereas Mila Kunis is an able sparring partner. (Woody Harrelson’s performance is also a small delight.) Friends with Benefits‘ witty script and solid dialogue (as well as brief appearances by Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone) reminded me of Easy-A, which is all too reasonable given that both films come from writer/director Will Gluck. As much as it would be easy to criticize the schematic nature of the film’s romantic angle, its heavy dose of unreality or the carefully delimited nature of the film’s irreverence (those satin bed-sheets surely get arranged strategically, don’t they?), there’s still a lot of sheer movie-watching pleasure in watching a slick rom-com gorgeously shot. New York looks beautiful in this film, and Gluck’s direction has a nice flow helped along by some fluid camerawork. It amount to a much-better-than-average romantic comedy, one that doesn’t push any boundaries but entertains charmingly.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder, but what if you still loathe what comes back after a lengthy hiatus? The eleven-year gap between Scream 3 and Scream 4 means that the last film emerges at a time where the original trilogy has become a nostalgic footnote in the horror genre, but one thing hasn’t changed: It’s just as unpleasant to watch a film in which a quasi-infallible serial killer goes around killing innocent people. No amount of post-modern ironic meta-commentary can save that genre out of its dead-end hole, and within moments of the opening segment (which, in retrospect, manages to foreshadow the film’s ending) I found my opinion of the film racing in negative territory and my interest wandering elsewhere. I’m now comfortably out of the demographics that enjoys extended murder sequences, and there isn’t much more to this latest entry in the Scream series. The one thing I kind-of-liked is the now-unusual feel of the film as a depiction of an alternate-universe America where every character is a high-schooler living in expensive houses without adult supervision. There’s something quaintly charming and pleasant (in a wish-fulfillment sense) about those lives, and it’s really too bad that they have to come complete with a supernaturally swift knife-wielding psycho. Of the actors stuck in this wholly useless film, I can only say that it’s good to see Neve Campbell again, and that of the younger actors, Hayden Panettiere is the most captivating as the short-haired sarcastic Kirby. Otherwise, I can’t even muster any enthusiasm about this limp Scream 4. The only thing that deserves to be killed here is the psycho-killer genre.
(On-demand Video, March 2012) As far as premises go, this documentary keeps it simple: William Shatner goes around interviewing the five other people who have played a captain (as lead) in a Star Trek universe. While there’s a little bit of footage of Shatner being himself at a Star Trek convention, much of The Captains is a series of one-on-one conversations between very different actors. Shatner seems to be enjoying himself (he wrote and directed the film), as he adds another piece to his very public voyage of self-awareness regarding his most iconic role –you’d think that after a few books, and many self-referential appearances in Trek-related works, there would be nothing left to say, but there is thanks to his interviewees. Patrick Stewart is grace incarnate as a top-level actor who has accepted his place in Trek history, but it’s his regrets at the toll the acting life has taken on his personal relationship that ends up being his moment in this film, much as Kate Mulgrew’s extraordinary description of the rigors of a TV series lead over a single mom’s life that ends up being the film’s emotional highlight. Otherwise, well, Avery Brooks is one weird/cool cat as he riffs off jazz music and somber themes. There’s no denying that The Captains is for trekkers: While it’s kind of entertaining to see Shatner arm-wrestle with Chris Pine, the film remains a definite vanity project meant to develop the kind of meta-Shatneresque personae that Shatner has been enjoying for the past two decades. Even so, it’s remarkably entertaining for those who know a bit about the Star Trek universe: discussions between fellow professionals often are.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I could go on and on about this being the epitome of the quirky/funny low-budget British crime comedy if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s a remake of French film Cible Émouvante. Still, Wild Target is short, dark, witty, quite funny and British to the core. Bill Nighy is up to his usual charming standards as a dapper, uptight hit-man contemplating getting away from it all, and he finds a great foil in the beautiful Emily Blunt as a flighty con artist needing protection who comes to change his regimented life. For a film that got nearly no press in North America, this is a very enjoyable surprise: the script is smarter than average, the actors look as if they’re having fun and the film perfectly doses a small amount of violence in this dark but not overly downbeat comedy. The dry humor doesn’t pander too much, and the film manages to remain interesting even when it abandons London (after a hilariously clever “car chase” through the City) for a small country estate. Wild Target‘s production qualities are fine for its low budget, Jonathan Lynn’s direction is generally unobtrusive and the result is worth a look. This is the kind of film that plays a lot better on the small screen as an “eh, might as well watch this one” choice than a big-screen event.
(On-demand Video, March 2012) I’m not particularly receptive to the “but it’s for kids!” argument as to why we should be more lenient regarding bad films for children. Great movies are great movies, and there are plenty of kids’ movies that are just as satisfying to adults. Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore certainly isn’t one of them. Built around the “Awww” reflex that humans have for pets, it’s an assortment of numerous special effects and awful jokes strung on a generic James Bond plot template. It’s cute and the CGI look as if many people worked a long time to perfect them, but it’s also terrible and dull to watch. There’s an occasional smirk or two in the numerous winks at the whole spy-movie genre, but otherwise it’s a film that quickly becomes background noise as watchers are compelled to make better use of their time. I suppose that parents with young kids may find some use out of it at a diversion. Otherwise, it’s useless to tell anyone to avoid Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore: they’ll come to that conclusion fast enough if they try to watch the film.
(On TV, March 2012) Some movies just rub me the wrong way, not matter how skillfully they’re made and how upbeat they can be. Seen from far away on paper, The Blind Side is pure movie-of-the-week stuff: A desperately poor and lonely teenager is rescued by the unbelievable kindness of strangers and goes on to earn some success in sports. But then you pile up the extras, increasingly the misery of the protagonist, making sure the rescuing strangers are kinder than virtue itself, ensuring that the sport is all-American football and topping it off with “this is based on a true story”. The film itself is well-made: Sandra Bullock plays her age well as a charming southern belle who decides to rescue the disadvantaged teenager; dialogues are occasionally very funny; technical credentials are just fine and the film ends on a note of unabashed optimism. The Blind Side earned accolades all the way up to an Oscar nomination, made tons of money and it’s almost disgusting to criticize a real-life true story like this one. And yet… it’s not that difficult to be troubled by the portrait of a rich white family rescuing a traumatized black child. There’s an element of unctuous Caucasian paternalism there that overshadows the rest of the film’s virtues, and being the whitest guy I know doesn’t change the cringe-inducing way the film portrays the issue. (Compare and contrast with Precious.) I’m just as uneasy about the way The Blind Side seems to be courting mainstream audience approval with its repeated devotion to religion, football, family and other traditional values. It certainly doesn’t help that the film seems adapted from a very small portion of Michael Lewis’ far more cerebral eponymous book, and that its structure seem built on a series of short dramatic loops, suddenly introduced and quickly resolved. Every character seems nice, every passing difference can be overcome after a conversation or two and the film seems unwilling to tackle any serious issue along the way. It works, but it seems so deliberately paternalistic that I can’t buy into it.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-budget found-footage horror film: I’m getting allergic to the found-footage shtick (which always ends up the same way), my responses to Christian mythology are muted, and for some reason I had the film tagged as “not well-reviewed” in my mental database. Much to my surprise, though, the film actually works well until its last two or three minutes. The documentary-style setup is more effective than most other horror films in setting up its “what if this could be true?” premise, and Patrick Fabian is almost immediately compelling as the conflicted lead protagonist, an exorcist who has come to doubt even the basis of his faith. Naturally, he’s in for some trying events as he heads over to Louisiana to show a documentary crew the flim-flam behind exorcisms. To its credit, The Last Exorcism ratchets its thrills gradually, and keeps a certain ambiguity as to its fantastic nature. It effectively constrains its characters into fairly outlandish motivations, locking them into a situation where most of us would run and not look back. Ashley Bell is also remarkably creepy as a possessed (?) 16-year-old girl. The film doesn’t do anything startlingly new with the found-footage format, although there’s one grisly cat sequence that’s relatively clever. Where the film falls apart, however, is in the last two minutes, as it seems to shift in an entirely different gear and settle on a very disappointing conclusion that doesn’t feel very satisfying. In a less-favorable state of mind, I may have been tempted to dismiss the film based on its lousy ending. As it is, though, I’m still surprised enough by the rest of the film that I’m tempted to be lenient, and forgive two bad minutes out of 87.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s nothing wrong with a high concept if it’s well-used, and at time Faces in the Crowd makes the most of its central gimmick: A woman who, after a brutal attack, can’t identify her attacker because of brain lesions causing prosopagnosia or, in layman’s term, an inability to recognize faces. Writer/director Julien Magnat has a few good ideas on how to exploit the situation, and the film occasionally turns trippy as various actors are used to play the same characters in an effort to depict the protagonist’s state of mind. The first hour of the film is particularly effective as it describes an unusual condition and the chills that can come from it. Milla Jovovich also turns in an interesting performance in the lead role, as a vulnerable woman far from her usual butt-stomping heroines. Unfortunately, Faces in the Crowd eventually runs out of steam –as much as it exploits its concept effectively, it also can’t avoid some obvious plot developments, and by the time it turns into another heroine-against-serial-killer showdown, some of the energy has run out of the film. The ending can’t resist a few clichés along the way, including the one where the serial killer turns out to be one of the film’s existing characters. Still, most of the movie isn’t too bad, there’s even some thematic depth to it, and anyone who has been to Winnipeg will have fun spotting some of the landmark used during the film’s production in an attempt to present itself as New York, most notably the Esplanade Riel bridge used during two crucial sequences. Faces in the Crowd is considerably better than a lot of direct-to-video thrillers –at the very least, it’s interesting and has one or two new tricks down its sleeves.
(On-demand Video, March 2012) I have watched too many cheap made-for-TV Science Fiction movies in the past few weeks, because I can’t even muster the faintest flicker of enthusiasm, affection, admiration or even sympathy for this film. Faithfully following the ur-plot of the latest crop of cheap made-for-TV SF movies (ie; rising menace from a monster/disaster, mounting deaths, characters fighting off the monster), Iron Invader not only does not attempt to rise above mediocrity, but has trouble reaching that level. A low budget can only excuse so much when the script is so poor. It wouldn’t have cost anything extra to include compelling characters or interesting dialogue, but the film is stuck with cookie-cutter elements and brain-dead plot points (Alcohol being effective as an antiseptic? Of course… except that it takes characters forever to realize it. More effective than bleach? That’s nonsense.) Unfortunately, nothing in Iron Invader is interesting. The alien menace is dull, the direction is pedestrian, the characters are forgettable and once it’s obvious that the film has neither a spark of interest nor any dose of self-awareness, it’s really hard to care. I can usually find something nice to say about even the most wretched movies, but this one defeats me.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) The original Hoodwinked! was charming in part because its B-grade low-budget computer animation reveled in its lack of over-production. The sequel is very similar: The computer animation is a perceptible notch or two underneath the Pixar/Dreamworks standard –but that may better show how visually sophisticated Pixar/Dreamworks movies actually are. Still, it looks fine, and the creature design isn’t too bad. As for the story itself, well, what can I say –humor is subjective, which serves to explain why I chuckled myself silly over the pop-culture references, dumb puns, lame gags and overdone comic mugging. I thought the original film was a lot of fun as well, so take this with a grain of salt: Hoodwinked Too! was savaged by critics, and while I can’t disagree with the substance of some of the harsher reviews (it’s truly not as charming as Hoodwinked!), I had a reasonable amount of fun watching the film given how it meets its own comedy goals. Still, given its terrible box-office results, I don’t think we’ll ever see a third entry in the series… and that’s almost too bad. There are many worse satires, worse comedies, worse films out there than this one. How is it possible to hate something that makes you smile? Oh, right… if it doesn’t.
(On cable TV, March 2012) A steady diet of made-for-TV Science-Fiction films rots the brain, so it’s best to watch them with distraction (say; while doing housework). It’s not, frankly, as if they’re worth constant attention: The way they usually go, and Behemoth is a case in point, is formulaic to the point of redundancy if you’re seen two or three of them: Built around the classic disaster-movie plot template, it starts with mysterious and deadly events, progresses with the accumulation of clues, reaches a third-act plot twist when stuff actually starts going badly, and resolves whenever the threat is eliminated. Dialogues, characters, acting and direction are strictly utilitarian, reinforcing the impression of a mass-produced feature. The only saving grace are to be found in the occasional bit of nice cinematography or special effects: Here, we get some nice footage of mountain forests, and a really awesome shot of a creature coming out of a mountain that makes up for dozens of bad CGI shots. There’s even a nicely-conceptualized scene in the “eye looking out of the mountain” one. Still, such rewards are few and slight compared to the prospect of sitting through 90 uninterrupted minutes of such by-the-numbers cheap filmmaking. Fewer disaster movies and more dirt-cheap high-concept experiments, please! Cube and Primer were awesome SF movies on ultra-low budgets –why not invest in a few such experiments rather than the same old disaster-movie endlessly repeated?