(On-demand Video, April 2012) I’ve had my fill of World-War-2 holocaust dramas, and my expectations about any new one tend to run low: The same themes, the same over-examined period of history, often the same maudlin excesses. What else is new? And yet, Elle s’appelait Sarah manages to do a few unusual things. It tackles the French collaboration in the deportation of its Jewish citizen, it splits its drama between 1942 and its consequences as seen from 2009; and it remains resolutely unsentimental about the impact of the war. It’s certainly not a cheery film, and the way in which at least one character dies is fit to give nightmares. But the film itself is well-executed, capably played and directed with some finesse. The split-era story is meshed more cleverly than you’d except at first, and the theme of self-deception is handled effectively. It’s a bit long, mind you, and the lack of happy endings is bound to grate. Still, the result manages to distinguish itself after years of Oscar-baiting films all revolving about this or that aspect of WW2 and/or the Holocaust. That’s quite a bit more than anyone would expect.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Some movies are unpleasant not matter how well they are executed, and this remake of Sam Pekinpah’s rural thriller certainly ranks high on the unease-meter. From the beginning, as two young urbanites uneasily settle down in rural Mississippi alongside the unrefined locals, it’s obvious that things won’t get any better. The good-old-boys network is bad to the bone; the young intellectual has no idea on how to get along; and there’s enough resentment between the wife and her ex-boyfriend to spark a cycle of increasing viciousness. It gets uglier and uglier until there’s no other way out than extreme violence. It’s meant to be unsettling –the suggestion may be that some violence can’t be met by anything but violence is enough to hang over what could have been a routine home-invasion thriller. But Straw Dogs’s messages may be mixed in the way it dwells at lengths over the abuse and the response: at some point (most notably during a lengthy rape sequence), it’s not too clear whether it condemns or revels into what’s happening on-screen. The male protagonist’s character arc is about shedding more and more moral inhibition until he’s able to meet his aggressors effectively. But critic-turned director Rod Lurie’s treatment of the violence, especially during the last bloody fifteen minutes, is much closer to a schlock B-movie than to a notional exploration of issues. It helps, a bit, that the film features some glorious Southern-USA cinematography (who wouldn’t want to own that house?) and that good actors are there to lend some more gravitas to a straightforward film. It doesn’t, however, make the film any easier to watch, or leave viewers with fulfilled expectations. Straw Dogs may look good, but it feels ugly… and yet not in a memorable way.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Being neither a fan of combat movies nor family drama, the most remarkable thing about Warrior is how well it managed to keep my attention. After a shaky first fifteen minutes, the stakes become clearer: These are two brothers from a broken family picking up Mixed Martial Arts and eventually facing off in the ring. The story isn’t much more complicated than this (and the repetitive third act contains very few surprises), but the film itself is well-made, with strong performances to lure viewers in. Nick Nolte earned an Oscar nomination for his role and Joel Edgerton turns out a strong performance as a family man forced to return to the ring in desperate circumstances. Still, it may be Tom Hardy who gets the thankless role of the younger brother cast adrift in his own isolation. It all amounts to a fairly predictable, but well-executed story, one that doesn’t suffer as much as you’d think from an improbable sequence of contrivances. There isn’t much to say about the grainy cinematography (except that some shots of Atlantic City look pretty nice), but the direction is a straight-ahead affair. Heavily slathered in the usual Americana sauce (family, military, sports), Warrior takes itself a bit seriously, but in doing so manages to avoid many of the traps that a less-earnest approach to the same subject would have encountered. It’s manipulative, of course, but baldly so. It’s arguably best seen as a double-bill with The Fighter.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Nearly everything about From Prada to Nada‘s marketing (title, poster, premise) can lead anyone to expect a sub-par brainless comedy not far away from superficial dreck such as The Hottie and the Nottie. The surprise is in finding out that this is a textured look at Los Angeles’ Latino community based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It starts on a rough note, as two sisters are expelled from their house after the death of their insolvent father. Forced to an exile in East L.A., they find that… oh, let’s face it: surprising plotting really isn’t one of From Prada to Nada‘s strong points. This romantic comedy is almost entirely predictable even if you haven’t read Austen, and much of the charm of the film lies in how well it hits the expected plot points. Camilla Belle is adorable as the sensible sister, and while it take a while for Alexa Vega’s Lindsey Lohan-lookalike to develop some audience sympathy, events eventually manage to win her over to the audience’s side. Otherwise, the real strength of the film is in its upbeat look at the South Californian Mexican-American sub-culture (The fact that the Latina protagonists don’t initially speak Spanish is one of the film’s running gags.) The dialogue isn’t anything special, the jokes are lazy, the character are stock figures and the direction is rarely inspired, but the film is nonetheless quite a bit warmer than expected. Austen fans will like the flavour given to this adaptation, while those looking for a middle-of-the-road romantic comedy won’t be too disappointed.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Sketch comedy seldom works in movies, and Four Rooms isn’t much of an exception to the rule. Four stories loosely set on a busy New Year’s Eve at a Los Angeles hotel; it’s a mash-up of four writer/directors with different sensibilities and a long list of actors playing small parts. Only Tim Roth provides a bit of continuity as the bellhop who ends up becoming the unwitting protagonist of the film, but his tendency to play the role at full intensity as a perpetually-manic oddball can be as grating as it is peculiar. The four segments aren’t created equal: From the sex-romp of the opening segment’s coven of witches, we go to a twisted game of role-playing between a married couple, turbulent kids playing while their parents are away, and a small group of rich men having too much fun with a lighter and a butcher’s knife. Robert Rodiguez and Quentin Tarantino, collaborating together years before Grindhouse, each bring their recognizable style to their segments. Interestingly, the film seems to have been shot in TV-style 1:1.33 aspect ratio, perhaps as homage to some of the source material. The humor is definitely quirky, and while some of it feels forced, other gags seem funnier. Tarantino fans will also appreciate a little bit of his motor-mouth dialogue in the last segment. Otherwise, Four Rooms exists as an increasingly-historical curiosity, the kind of intriguing idea that falters in production. Not a disaster, but of primary interests to fans of the directors.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) For years, I wondered missing out on Flatliners had led to an embarrassing omission in my movie-going culture. Hadn’t this film earned some interest as a science-fiction film? Didn’t it star a bunch of actors who went on to bigger things? Wasn’t this one of Joel Shumacher’s best-known movies from his earlier, better period? The answer to these questions is yes… but the film itself seems a bit of a letdown after viewing. Oh, some things still work well, and may even work better than expected. Of the five main actors, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt have all gone on to big careers –with poor William Baldwin being left behind. Schumacher’s direction is backed-up with Jan de Bont’s impressive cinematography: the visuals of the film may not make much sense, but they evoke a modern-gothic atmosphere that remains distinctive even today. The high-concept of the film remains potent, with genius-level medical students voluntarily defying death to investigate the mysteries of the afterlife. Unfortunately, all of these elements don’t quite add up satisfyingly. The jump from the high concept to the characters’ personification of those concepts is weak, and the contrivances become almost too big to ignore. The idea of atonement being closely linked to death is powerful, but the way this variously follows the character is more difficult to accept. (As Platt’s character knowingly remarks, those without deep-seated traumas will end up with some fairly silly phantoms.) There is quite a bit of repetitive one-upmanship in the way the plotting unfolds, and Flatliners sadly goes too quickly from provocative idea to ordinary morality. Still, it’s easy to argue that the film is worth a look: Roberts, Sutherland and Bacon look really good in early roles, and the visual style of the film is still an achievement twenty years later. There are some good ideas in the mix (witness the visual motif of “construction” -reconstruction, deconstruction- underlying nearly each scene), the portrait of intelligent characters interacting is charming and some of the suspense still works surprisingly well when it doesn’t descend in silliness. There are a few films that qualify as “minor classics” of their era in time. While Flatliners certainly won’t climb year’s-best lists retroactively, it’s a film that remains more remarkable than many of its contemporaries. I don’t regret seeing it… and I may even have liked to see it a bit earlier.
(On-demand video, April 2012) As far as mid-sixties coming-of-age films go, That’s What I Am has almost all of the usual elements: Life lessons, befriended outcasts, wise teacher and eighth-grade first love. It plays without surprises (although some of the expected plot beats aren’t dwelled upon –I was sure that something was going to happen to the car, for instance) but it does so with warmth and wit. The narration is better than usual, the characters are nicely defined, there are quite a few moments of decent humanity (something that’s perhaps a bit too rare nowadays) and the film does have a certain narrative energy in finding out what’s going to happen next. Ed Harris shines as the protagonist’s influential teacher, but the child actors all turn in some good work as the students. I’m still trying to figure out why the film was produced by Word Wrestling Entertainment, but never mind that logo: That’s What I Am is the kind of small-expectations movie that fills up a nice quiet evening. It’s perhaps not special enough to warrant an effort to seek, but it’s absolutely fine at what it attempts to be.
(On-demand Video, April 2012) I’m never too sure whether I should be annoyed or relieved when mainstream Hollywood comedies end up neutering their daring premises with innocuous plot developments. Audiences don’t like to be unnerved when they’re supposed to be laughing, and I suppose that I’m no exception. Nonetheless, there’s something maddening in seeing a film about married couples agreeing to mutual indiscretion racing to a conclusion when nothing really happened. (Actually, it may be best to ignore the fact that the one woman who did something, albeit briefly, ends up punished by a car crash that ends up not much more than a plot point for her husband’s emotional growth. But such is the way of Hollywood, and this includes the emotionally-retarded male protagonists who are supposed to earn our sympathy. The gender politics here aren’t particularly even-handed here, which is keeping in mind the target audience of the film.) Still, Hall Pass has a number of laughs in reserve, especially when the protagonists can’t even begin to imagine how to take advantage of the freedom they’ve bargained for themselves. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who, in-between this film, Horrible Bosses and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, is carving himself a bit of a niche as a sex-obsessed protagonist) are both as charming as they can be in characters who are barely emotionally adults, although it’s Richard Jenkins who gets the biggest laughs in short appearances as an even older and less mature professional bachelor. The problem is that by ultimately playing it safe, Hall Pass doesn’t do anything that warrants any lasting attention. Despite a few out-of-place graphic gags, it’s a disposable comedy destined to the bargain bin.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Don’t be fooled by the pornish title; this R-rated ensemble comedy is about as good-natured as sex-themed mainstream comedies can, er, come. Never mind the “pervasive sexual content” promised by the film’s R rating, the mostly-amusing nudity, porn film snippets or the standard-issue profanity: This is a movie about thirty-something post-teenagers trying to hold on to high school friendships in the face of increasing “adult” commitments by putting together an orgy before a summer getaway destination is taken away from them. To its credit, the film does confront the uneasiness of such a situation, and the way such an event is likely to alter friendships along the way. (It’s a comedy, though, so don’t worry over-much.) The laughs are closer to chuckles, but they’re numerous enough to make the film worthy a look for those in the mood for an amiable but not-too-explicit sex comedy. Jason Sudeikis is likable as the lead, but it’s really an ensemble effort that makes the film work as a comedy. Don’t expect wall-to-wall indecency, and the film eventually works itself to a good-natured conclusion.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) As someone who grew up on Les Schtroumpfs in their original French, both on TV and in comics, I suppose that I can’t be surprised if I’m not entirely enthusiastic about Hollywood’s The Smurfs live-action adaptation. There’s something… wrong… about the way the Smurfs are rendered on-screen, the clean glossiness of the comics incarnation made a bit too real by 3D textures. Thus unfairly prejudiced against the film, it’s no stretch to find the script rote, dull and juvenile even by kids’ movies standards. While the occasional self-aware line is good enough to earn a smile, it’s not enough to excuse the tired slapstick, the badly-animated CGI cat or the Scottish Smurf making a constant stream of testicle jokes. By the time the film features Smurfs rocking “Walk this Way” on Guitar Hero, I’m left shaking my head and muttering “Smurfs are not supposed to even try to be cool.” Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays are cute as the New York couple hosting the little blue characters, and some of the thematic ties to the prospect of imminent parenthood strike an unexpected chord. It’s not quite enough to offset the continuing annoyance at the antics on-screen, or the uncanny valley uneasiness of the Smurfs themselves… but it’s just enough to avoid throwing this film in the bin of irremediable failures. At the very least, The Smurfs will keep the kids entertained, and some of the throwaway lines will entertain the adults. Despite everything, it could have been worse.
(On-demand Video, April 2012) Where have all of the stylish martial-arts movies gone? Watching the hit-and-miss The Warrior’s Way, the first thought coming to mind is that I used to see a whole lot more of those films ten years ago than today. Am I simply not looking in the wrong places? Are these movies still being made? From its first highly stylized shots, The Warrior’s Way creates its own sense of reality and dares viewers to keep up. Beautifully-colored skies, sweeping camera action shots, stoic heroes and a blend of Asian sensibilities in a Western setting (with a bit of circus as color) will either frustrate viewers or make them swoon. The script seldom deals in subtleties: Our hero is without reproach, his love for the heroine is pure, and all of the antagonists are beyond caricatures of evil. (Which becomes a problem when the violence is carried just a bit too far for the rest of the film’s intentions.) I quite liked some sequences, such as a very long-shot sword-fighting sequence, or the crazy attack sequence featuring a half-built Ferris wheel, but the film itself could have been tightened up and concluded more optimistically: The Warrior’s Way is just good enough to remind us of the way martial art movies can be good, while not good enough to completely satisfy those expectations. Fans of the sub-genre will no doubt appreciate it more than those coming in cold to those conventions. It is very pretty to look at, though.
Bantam Spectra, 2011 reprint of 2000 original, 1216 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-553-57342-8
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series may have been originally conceived as a trilogy, but by the time third volume A Storm of Sword wraps up, it’s obvious that we’re in for a much longer story. The cast-of-thousands carnival of the story’s sprawling plot has seldom felt as chaotic, and the conclusion is nowhere in sight. As ironic as the statement can be after a 1,216-pages book, it’s time to settle down and enjoy the ride.
It goes without saying that long-running series have the strengths of their weaknesses, and vice-versa: There’s enough space and time to fully develop the world of the story, to pile on characters and see them evolve through dramatic changes in situation. Properly handled, this can lead to a fundamentally different reading experience than single novels or even mere trilogies: an entertainment experience closer to a long-running TV series (in which Martin’s series is slowly being adapted) rather than anything else.
On the other hand, multi-strand narratives featuring the proverbial cast-of-thousands can also test readers’ patience. Not everything is equally compelling, and some characters are just annoying. The setup/payoff cycles pacing, in particular, can be off for a while as the author builds plot-lines that will resolve later on.
These strengths and weaknesses are particularly obvious in A Storm of Swords, which contains some of the dullest but also some of the finest moments of the series so far. The first half of the book is about setting up dominoes; the second half is about upsetting them. The wait is substantial, but the payoffs just keep happening once the book races to a conclusion.
For series fans, it means that Arya keeps wandering around Westeros, never quite reaching her intended destinations. It also means that she gets a long-awaited payoff late in the book. Jon Snow keeps trudging through the snowy north, but he also gets a bit of recognition for his efforts at the conclusion. Far away, Daenerys Targaryen is still in the process of trading
a paperclip for a house a trio of dragons for an empire, but even the growing power of her fire-children can’t completely excuse the monotony of her quest so far away from everything we know about this world. Closer to the center of action, Tyrion Lannister can’t get no respect as the unheralded savior of King’s Landing, but the book ends on a few shocking development that may make readers wonder about him and the nature of his revenge.
Not that he’s the only character to be re-evaluated by readers. One of the first groans in A Storm of Swords is seeing Martin give viewpoint chapters to Jamie Lannister, the no-good incestuous children-thrower who crippled Bran Stark at the very beginning of the series. Imagine our surprise as Jamie undergoes enough extreme hardship to deserve some sympathy, and reveals himself to be more than a good-looking psychopathic warrior. (It helps that he’s one of the wittiest characters around.) Such, again, are the advantages of lengthy pre-planned series: Villains to heroes, and possibly heroes to villains.
The first half of A Storm of Sword may not escape a bit of tedium (something that the narrative structure of the book, which locks itself in subjective point-of-view for lengthy chapters, does little to soften), but the accumulation of shocks and revelations in the book’s final third more than compensates for the initial slow burn. Even readers who feel that they have spoiled themselves reading about the book will find that there are more surprises in store than they ever expected. (Hint: don’t read about the “Red Wedding”. Just accept that it’s coming and it’s going to be bad.) HBO recently announced that A Storm of Swords would be adapted as seasons 3 and 4 of the Game of Thrones miniseries; I’m already looking forward to comments and reactions to the second half of season 4, as the body count piles up and characters start doing things that will surprise even their biggest fans. It’s going to be a wild ride. If people through season one was merciless, they haven’t seen anything yet…
These adaptation considerations, of course, have no reflection on this third book, which eventually ranks as the strongest volume of the series so far. Martin has embarked on an ambitious project with A Song of Ice and Fire, and A Storm of Swords suggest that he’s making things even harder on himself as he goes along. In the wreckage of the book’s multi-strand conclusion, readers are expected to blink in astonishment and wonder… what’s next?
Ballantine, 1993 reprint of 1969 original, 270 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-099-42765-0
I hadn’t read The Andromeda Strain in more than a decade and a half when a chance viewing of the classic 1971 film adaptation rekindled my interest in Michael Crichton’s breakout novel. At an admirably concise 270 pages, the novel wasn’t going to crimp my limited reading time, and my accumulated shelves of already-read books aren’t just for showing off, right?
You probably remember the premise, either from the novel’s best-selling reputation, the 1971 film or the 2008 miniseries: a satellite falls back on Earth, bringing back something that kills nearly everyone in a small Arizona town. Four scientists are asked to investigate: Locked in a secret underground laboratory, they race against time to solve the mystery of the so-called Andromeda Strain before the inevitable “containment measures” escalate. Briskly told at the cutting-edge of late-sixties technology, Crichton’s first best-seller is an unusual page-turner, enthralling readers through reams of well-written exposition, while codifying the conventions of the techno-thriller genre.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of re-reading a 1969 techno-thriller is how gracefully it has aged. There is no going around the fact that the book was written a long time ago: Any narrative that spends a few paragraph explaining how “time-sharing computers” work seems almost irremediably quaint in the age of ubiquitous smart-phones. (If you want to feel old, consider that 1969 is now 43 years distant as of this writing.) But despite the novel’s carefully-circumscribed focus on contemporary techno-scientific matters (if there are references to Vietnam or hippies in the book, a speed-read hasn’t revealed them), it’s animated by a decidedly contemporary intention to try to explain the world to the reader. As a techno-thriller, it revels in the telling (sometimes made-up) detail that bridges the gap between fiction and reality. For readers with finely-attuned genre-protocol antennas, it’s this willingness to engage the cutting-edge of the Known that, ironically, enough, makes the novel feel fresh. If you accept that the general perception of reality lags behind the time, you can also argue that most people never bother to adjust their perception of reality beyond the model they learned as teenagers (which was often based on pop-culture, and so a few years behind the times). Techno-thrillers and science-fiction are two genre that sometimes attempt to describe the scary implications of progress, and this attitude show no sign of growing old. Compare The Andromeda Strain to something like Neal Stepheenson’s Baroque Cycle (which applied the same didactic perspective to history) and it’s not hard to imagine that if a 2012 writer wanted to write a circa-1969 techno-thriller, he’d end up with something very similar to The Andromeda Strain. Older books that age gracefully become period pieces. In this light, having the author explain time-sharing computers takes on a new and not unpleasant flavour.
The other substantial asset of the novel is Crichton’s uncanny ability to Make Stuff Up. From 2012, it’s easier to tell fact from fiction: Kalocin (a drug that kills “every known virus, bacterium, fungus, and parasite”, with hideous consequences) doesn’t exist, obviously. But you’d swear otherwise from The Andromeda Strain’s narrative, as seamlessly as the device is inserted in-between convincing technical details, documentary framing devices (“this is a reconstruction based on interviews…”) and frequent blurring between reality and fiction. Crichton had a great ear for plausible-sounding nonsense, something that the careful explanation of the “Scoop” program (which is almost meaningless in the movie adaptation) makes amply clear. Elsewhere in the narrative, the Odd Man Hypothesis (which “proves” that you want a single unmarried man to have a finger on the trigger of a nuclear device, although even the characters acknowledge that it’s an elaborate rationalization for a more sinister purpose) is bunk, but you could almost swear that it was the subject of a Malcolm Gladwell essay not too long ago. This aptitude for believable lies may be worth recalling in studying Crichton’s entire bibliography, and most notably his romans provocateurs phase in-between Rising Sun and Next.
All of these elements accumulate into a nice tight thriller in which, ironically enough, the characters don’t actually do all that much. They poke and prod at the mystery, but ultimately can’t do much to fix the problem. The protagonist’s big act of heroism consists in avoiding death, which may be laudable, but tends to obscure the War-of-the-Worldsian irony of the novel’s plot. It’s either lazy plotting or a brilliant counter-weight to the novel’s detailed paean to the power of human ingenuity. Latter techno-thrillers wouldn’t be as willing to acknowledge humanity’s lack of agency over doomsday threats.
There’s little need to add that all of these factors, and a few more I don’t have the patience to list, make up for a 1969 book that is well worth a re-read even today. It still exerts an undeniable fascination, and its place in history as a seminal thriller is practically assured. You can find echoes of its impact today, but the original is still resonant.
(On-demand video, April 2012) There really isn’t anything startlingly original about the dramatic arc of Holy Rollers: You can probably recall a bunch of other “good kid gets involved in drug-dealing, realizes how terrible it is and gets out” movies out there and this one doesn’t structure itself any differently. What is new here, however, is the context: We seldom see films about the Hassidic Jewish community, and melding the usual kid-becoming-criminal plot template in this environment (it’s based on a true story) is interesting in itself even despite the lack of surprises in where it’s going. (Actually, the biggest surprise here is that Holy Roller isn’t really interested in criticizing the Hassidic lifestyle. This may end up being a problem for some viewers as the film tries to show the protagonist both getting away and yet returning to the faith-based lifestyle.) Much of the cinematography aims for drab realism: This is the kind of low-budget film that looks as if it was shot on a low budget, murky colors, shaky handheld camera and accidental shot composition are all on-screen. Acting-wise, Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t stretch far in a very familiar role for him, but he’s as fine as the rest of the cast in giving life to the rest of the story. Otherwise, Holy Roller is a straight-up dramatic film: it’s good enough at what it does, doesn’t reach out of its comfort zone and doesn’t leave any strong feelings one way or another. It exists and it’s relatively successful at what it does.
(On-demand video, April 2012) Here’s my new life pro-tip for cinephiles: “Get premium cable TV channels for the big Hollywood movies; keep it for the smaller films that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise!” Flypaper may not have been seen in theaters, but on the small screen it makes for a clever and satisfying crime mystery. The film does take a while to find its footing, as a quirky savant finds himself in the middle of two simultaneous bank robberies: for a while, Flypaper’s tone remains fuzzy as it veers between a serious crime film and a more light-hearted comedy. But such initial sputters a common in dark comedies, and Flypaper soon finds itself on firmer footing as the real nature of its convoluted plot becomes more apparent. Patrick Dempsey is the anchor of the film as a troubled genius investigating the crime in which he’s being held hostage, while Ashley Judd makes for a compelling heroine. Some of the supporting characters do the best work, though, as with the banter between blue-collar bank robbers played by Tim Blake Nelson and Pruitt Taylor Vince, or a small-but-showy part for Jeffrey Tambor. The dialogue is occasionally witty, the script is a cut above most crime comedies, and the inspired direction has its moments. Flypaper is a dark-horse, hidden-gem kind of low-budget film: small cast but a capable script and well-handled filmmaking. It wraps up on a high note, and leaves a great impression.