(On-demand, September 2012) When writers with no understanding or affection for science-fiction turn to the genre, the result is often a mixture of pretentious philosophy, incoherent fantasy and plot-free structure labeled SF in the misguided conviction that you can use the genre label to say anything without scrutiny. So it is that in It’s All About Love’s near-future, we get a blend of human cloning, people dropping dead in public places, Uganda experiencing country-wide weightlessness, all water periodically transforming into ice. These elements make no sense in a literal fashion, but trying to figure out the metaphorical link in-between those events and the on-screen adventures of a divorcing couple soon turns to indifference. Who really cares when the film fails to achieve any kind of narrative momentum? Deadened by terrible dialogue, dark cinematography, arthritic camera moves and major actors who seem stuck in roles they didn’t want, It’s All About Love mystifies more than it enlightens. Joaquin Phoenix mangles an Italian accent while Claire Danes looks bored and Sean Penn seems to have shot all of his plane-bound scenes in half a day. Mark Strong makes an impression in an early minor role, but the doubt remains: how did all those actors end up in this inert and ponderous film? It’s All About Love keeps going long after it should have concluded, and writer/director Thomas Vinterberg doesn’t seem interested in making any part of his film accessible to the audience. With this results (and that’s not even going into the now-legendary tales of the hostile reception the film got at Sundance in 2003), little wonder that It’s All About Love sank without a trace and can now be seen only by sheer happenstance. Some movies are best forgotten.
(On-demand, September 2012) Body-switching is a surprisingly common trope in live-action films, up to a point where when it’s used in The Change-Up, the focus is less on the fantastical nature of the switch than in the comic potential of the premise. Here, a perennial bachelor (played by Ryan Reynolds) switches bodies with a career-driven family man (played by Jason Bateman). It goes without saying that the film’s biggest pleasure is in seeing Bateman and Reynolds play with their on-screen personas, Bateman undermining his wholesome image while Reynolds reverts to his old Van Wilder days. From the first few minutes, we know that the film will be burdened with scatological references, phallic humor and pervasive bad language. We also know that it’s in the nature of such films to end in a way that reinforces everyone’s social expectations. In other words; don’t expect anything subversive… in fact, brace yourself for mid-thirties juvenility. If you’re in the right mood (amused, forgiving, certainly immature), it works relatively well: there are enough funny gags in-between the formulaic plot scaffolding and the mandatory sentimental moments to make it seem worthwhile. The Change-Up was critically savaged upon release and it’s not hard to see why, but the result is still a slickly-made, occasionally hilarious comedy with two of the most capable comic actors in the business: once you get past the crudity factor, it’s not too bad. It may even have something to say about the nature of one’s place in the world and the happiness we can make for ourselves… in between the constant swearwords and the graceless nudity, of course.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) There are bad movies, and then there are awful movies. Movie-watchers quick to criticize the latest Hollywood blockbuster usually forget that there’s far more awful stuff lurking in the direct-to-video realm. Films so bad that they break the suspension of disbelief required to watch a film, leaving viewers squirming as they just see bad actors mouthing terrible dialogue in cheap sets. So it is that after a truly promising first five minutes blending schoolgirl outfit, ironic dialogue and some structural sophistication, Bounty Hunters quickly devolves into an awful made-for-video Z-grade crime thriller. Wrestler Trish Stratus stars as a bounty hunter who knows how to fight, but her ability to carry herself physically can’t save the film when it suffers from such a low budget, pedestrian writing or general immaturity. Canadian pride won’t hold me back from acknowledging that the film was shot in Toronto (with Ontario plates on the vehicles), in slush-filled locations. The problem with the film is that save for its decently-polished opening, it’s bland and dull and uninteresting in the most profound way: it doesn’t click as an entertainment experience and as a result all of its flaws seem magnified. There’s no reason to be interested in it, and even the so-called emotional motivation of the film remains off-screen. When even a girl-on-girl fight sequence in an ambulance leaves me yawning, it’s time to say that nothing’s working. Too bad; I’m usually indulgent when it comes to action films… but not this one.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) After having trouble staying awake during the first two Underworld movies and skipping the third, I was a bit surprised to see that this fourth installment actually had some pep to it. After a prologue that demonstrates how ridiculously over-powered the heroine of the series has become (a lot like Resident Evil 4’s Alice, from the same
factory studio), Awakening seemingly take a bold narrative leap by skipping ahead 12 years and dealing audiences a new scenario in which humans have wizened up to the vampire/werewolf threat and are busy exterminating both. I say “seemingly” because not much actually changes in this near-future: Awakening is still shot in black-and-blue, Kate Beckinsale still wears the same form-fitting bodysuit and the fighting between wolves and fangs still becomes a bit repetitive. The addition of a daughter doesn’t do much after the first thirty minutes, and there’s a sense that plot-wise, the film sputters after a promising first act. Still, this series is about the fighting and there’s some effective work here and there by directors Mårlind & Stein. There’s a lot of mayhem on-screen, and some of it sticks. While Awakening overcomes its welcome even at less than 90 minutes, it’s not a complete loss. It may be a case of lowered expectations, but Awakening measures favorably against its often-dull predecessors in the same series, and action fans should see one of two good things in it.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) As far as haunted-house horror movies featuring young protagonists are concerned, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, 2010-remake edition, isn’t too bad: It’s got the creepy house, it’s got the malevolent creatures, it’s got the sympathetic young girl as a protagonist and it has a lot of atmosphere. The screenplay may be from Guillermo del Toro (who also produced the film) but don’t be fooled: while the result has a few similarities with del Toro’s already-classic Pan’s Labyrinth, it is markedly more ordinary and doesn’t really rise above the horror B-movie genre. Still, within these confines, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark does a few things right: Troy Nixey’s direction is fluid and creates a effective sense of space by moving through the sets. The actors turn in good performances: Bailee Madison is center stage as the young protagonist, but Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce do just fine as the adults renovating an old creepy house. The script is a bit too loosely-connected to be entirely satisfying, some sub-plots lead nowhere and the ending is a bit more heartless than expected, but the film itself has its good moments, especially if you focus on the cinematography. While Don’t be Afraid of the Dark won’t win awards or remain in memory longer than the next decent horror film, it’s not a bad way to spend a stormy Saturday evening.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) I’m constantly amazed at the number of decent films that fly under my radar. I had years where I saw more than 70 movies in theaters, and will probably see that many even this year when I’m deliberately avoiding theaters to stay at home watching on-demand movies; I keep up with the trade news and have a fairly reliable mental database of whose in what; I like Jason Statham a lot… why is it that I completely missed seeing Chaos when it came out in 2005? I can’t explain it… but I can enjoy it, because even on the small screen, Chaos is a decent middle-of-the-road crime thriller. Featuring Jason Statham, Ryan Philippe and (briefly) Wesley Snipes in one of his last roles before his 2006-2009 eclipse, Chaos has the advantage of a strong opening and a decent middle section before turning repetitive and overlong in its final act. There’s playfulness in the way the opening crams a film’s worth of plot in a credit sequence, and then in the way is plays along with traditional genre elements during its first half. Chaos’ biggest problem is that it doesn’t quite know how to deliver a third act –although, fortunately, it manages a good final scene as a kicker. Statham is as reliable as always in a solid policeman role, whereas Philippe plays a familiar but ill-fitting young-wunderkind protagonist. (Snipes, meanwhile, shown up for a while and disappears except when the film needs a scare or two.) Still, there’s a lot to like about some of the film’s thematic content: As a big fan of James Gleick’s Chaos, I was overjoyed to see the non-fiction science book get a prominent role in a crime thriller. Still, I think that Chaos will work better for viewers who are receptive to crime-thriller genre elements and the ways they can be blended, recombined and subverted. It may not be a film for the ages, but it’s good enough at what it does, and it confirms that few actors can be as effective action heroes as Statham.
Quirk, 2011, 256 pages, C$16.95 tp, ISBN 978-1-5947-4463-1
I should probably start this review by reminding infrequent readers that 2012 is my first semi-sabbatical year as far as reviewing stuff on the internet is concerned. I’m a newly-minded dad, my time is limited, and one good way to give myself more time is to cut down on reading. But my birthday is this month, and, heck, I deserve the occasional treat. That’s how I ended up cracking open Kevin David Anderson & Sam Stall’s Night of the Living Trekkies, my first novel in months that’s not motivated by having just seen the movie adaptation.
My expectations weren’t particularly high. The entire plot is almost entirely explained in the title: Mash a Star Trek convention with a zombie invasion and, well, there you have it. We know how this thing’s going to go from years of zombie movies. As a reader looking for a bit of escapism, I was expecting the usual zombie-invasion narrative arc, some Trek references and (hopefully) a happy ending deviating from the usual “everybody dies” cliché.
Fortunately, Andreson and Stall are good at exceeding expectations. Night of The Living Trekkies manages to deliver what it should deliver and add a little bit more on the top. We’ve covered the essentials: it affectionately presents some of the fun surrounding a Star Trek convention (even if it’s one shut down early for cause of the rising undead), then overwhelms it with the Zombie Apocalypse. There’s no discernible contempt here for either Star Trek or zombies as the authors write from an insider’s perspective. The Trek trivia runs both broad and deep: while die-hard trekkers will be tickled by some of the references, those whose appreciation for the series runs shallower shouldn’t feel as if they’re missing out on much. (Here’s a test to rate yourself on the Trekker/Zombie-fan scale: Can you picture a Klingon decapitating a zombie with a bat’leth? How does that mental picture make you feel?)
Where the book starts to deliver on more than the stock premise is in its characterization. Our hero is an Afghanistan veteran whose has come home with the intention of hiding out in a job with no responsibilities and zero potential for danger. In the midst of a zombie uprising, though, our protagonist finds himself forced into a position of leadership with a lot of potential for personal growth. He is soon surrounded by an assortment of well-sketched characters, some of them with conflicting agendas. While the novel has a few technically regrettable point-of-view problems (including a temporary jump into a minor character’s thought processes), Night of the Living Trekkies is written with a certain amount of narrative cleverness, and the novel is rarely less than interesting. Well-conceived sequences reach an apex of sorts with a dramatic action sequence in a parking garage. The chuckles are carefully balanced with the chills, creating a successful comedy/horror hybrid. It even comes to develop a richer back-story than the usual “zombies braaaiiins” shtick, leading to a solidly science-fictional rationale for the zombies that dovetails nicely with the Star Trek motif of the novel.
In a few words, Night of the Living Trekkies succeeds at what it intends to be. The cover makes it clear that this is supposed to be lurid pulp-fiction, but it delivers on this premise without going over-the-top with the gore, or forgetting that a solid plot is essential in carrying the side-gags. It even had me writing my first review in nearly two months and isn’t that something for someone who should be spending time cleaning up his basement?
(On-demand, September 2012) Perhaps the best thing about the digitalization of the filmmaking process has been to expand the scope of small cheap action movies. Add some CGI sequences and a lot of green-screen set extensions to a moderately clever script and suddenly it’s entirely possible to make an action film set aboard an orbital space station in 2079 for a reported 20-million-dollars budget. Lockout’s real asset, though, is the straightforward script: it’s all about action nonsense, and from the very first shot of the film onward, it never apologizes for what it tries to be. Sure, the idea of cryogenically keeping prisoners in a space station is economically ludicrous (albeit justified later on with a bit of Evil Intention). Sure, the idea of sending in a renegade agent to sort the mess is reminiscent of Escape from New York. Sure, the film’s science starts out idiotic and then sinks further in impossibility. But it’s hard to take it as anything more or deeper than a straight-up action thriller. As such, Lockout satisfies expectations: it’s not refined, subtle or even memorable, but it’s got a clever kick to it –but that’s about as much as we can expect from the Luc Besson script factory on good days. It helps a lot that it’s headed by Guy Pearce, temporarily abandoning his dramatic thespian ambitions to deliver a fully-muscled performance as a snarky anti-hero. It’s too bad that the script could have been just a touch better, or the action sequences just a bit more memorable. As such, we’re left with a moderately satisfying thriller: Lockout is exactly what can hit a sweet spot on a rainy day, but not something that people will quote as a reference months later.
(On-demand, September 2012) Given the latest decade of post-Lord of the Rings fantasy films, re-imagining the Snow White fairytale as epic fantasy wasn’t such a conceptual leap. Here’s the evil queen, here are the rebels, here is Snow White as a symbol of the old order to be restored… not bad. Or rather; would have been not bad had someone with some skill had written the script, and someone vastly more talented been the lead protagonist. Because, even though I like Kristen Stewart in specific doses (Adventureland, anyone?), her range as a dour emotionless actress just isn’t wide enough to accommodate what she’s being asked to do here. Would it kill her to smile, laugh, squee or have fun once in a while? Not that the issues stop here, what with a medieval-ish land that clearly has pagan magic and a Christian prayer in it: It’s never too clear whether the universe of this film is supposed to be realist with a bit of magic or a fully-magical secondary universe. No matter, though, because plot contrivances really drive this story, along with misguided told-not-shown romance, dropped plot threads, blindingly-obvious foreshadowing and other problems. At least two people come out if this film with reputations intact: Charlize Theron as the evil queen with more humanity than the protagonist, and Chris Hemsworth as the gruff titular huntsman. Below the line, the people who worked on the film’s visual elements should also give themselves a pat on the back: there’s some nice work here, most notably in the scene-setting of the fairyland segments. Alas, it’s a moment that clashes with the grittiness of the rest of the film and feels largely useless as a plot element, something that extends to the seven dwarves of the Snow White legend. (In a further twist, a number of famous non-dwarves actors play the somewhat superfluous dwarves, something so staggeringly useless as to defy explanation.) For all of the visual impact of the film, Snow White and the Hunstman is almost completely empty of interest: the plot staggers and spurts ahead without forward momentum, and the result is boring. 2012 has seen two disappointing big-screen versions of the Snow White fairytale, but if I’d have to choose, I’d rather sit through Mirror, Mirror once again.
(Cable TV, September 2012) The most dependable thing about director Tarsem Singh’s work is the astonishing visual polish of his work: From The Cell to The Fall to Immortals to Mirror, Mirror, the least one can say about his work is that it’s pretty to look at. In terms of story, though, he doesn’t always pick the best scripts: His own writing on The Fall was intriguing, but his other films are disappointing to some degree. Immortals is no exception to the rule: While it features a number of sequences that are pretty enough to work as classical paintings, its story veers between confusion, dullness and trite clichés. Based on Greek mythology, Immortals is partly an excuse to produce a turbo-charged fantasy action film using top-notch special effects, and partly an excuse to play in the rarefied sphere of intensely operatic sword-and-sandal drama. It works, but not completely: While the visuals are one-wow-a-minute, the story takes a long time to get going, and even then merely works in fragments. Henry Cavill doesn’t have anything to regret in his performance as Theseus, while Freida Pinto perfectly plays the part of a reluctant oracle and Mickey Rourke brings some energy in the picture as the villainous King Hyperion. Still, this isn’t an actor’s film: it’s really a directorial showpiece, and Immortals has a lot of visually memorable set-pieces. The atmosphere may feel a bit claustrophobic (at time, it seems as if half the outdoors scenes are set on a cliff overlooking the sea), but the sequences are polished to such a degree that the entire film feels photo-shopped. (Immortals may feature some of the goriest slow-motion deaths in recent fantasy, but it’s so pretty that the only response is an astonished “oooh”.) Too bad the script hasn’t been re-worked to such degree: we’re left with a dull beginning, a muddled middle and a straightforward ending. A blend of 300 aesthetics with Clash of the Titans mythology, Immortals works best as a plot-less eye candy. Maybe, some day, Tarsem will manage to combine his superlative visuals with a good script.
(On-demand, September 2012) After a number of smaller roles in movies since 2008’s Mamma Mia!, Amanda Seyfried is finally getting to headline a film in Gone: She’s not only the lead protagonist: there’s no one else of comparable stature in the cast and she’s on-screen nearly from beginning to end. Her role, as a damaged abduction survivor trying to track down her sisters’ kidnapper, is not a bad part for someone trying to build her credentials as a leading actress and Seyfried gives it all she’s got. Unfortunately, the script isn’t good enough to make the movie better than her performance: In-between the gratuitously misogynistic dialogue, the dropped subplots or the concluding revelation that almost invalidates the plot of the film so far, Gone has basic issues that prevent it from being anything other than a middle-of-the-road, faintly dull suspense film. Some of the harsher dialogue and investigative set-pieces work in the moment, but they don’t amount to anything worth remembering a few hours after the credits roll. (It doesn’t help that the conclusion feels anticlimactic.) Portland (Oregon) is nicely featured, but otherwise it’s difficult to find anything distinctive to say about the film. Gone is merely another title in a long list of undistinguished wintertime thrillers that seemingly only serve to feed the vast maw of Hollywood’s distribution machine. It’s not awful, but neither is it any good.