(On-demand video, October 2012) Director Tim Burton’s artistic sensibilities are almost always interesting, but that doesn’t always translate in purely enjoyable films. I had issues with his latest Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland, but Dark Shadows renews with a strong sense of fun, readapting a long-running supernatural soap opera into a scattershot blend of character comedy, gothic visuals and straightforward plotting. Johnny Depp turns in another quirky performance as a vampire protagonist, indulging in his usual affectations to create a rather sympathetic blood-sucking hero abruptly thrust from 1760 to 1972. He is ably surrounded by a good cast, most notably Michelle Pfeiffer as the head of the modern family in need of help by the protagonist. The adaptation’s 1972 setting is good for a good soundtrack, cheap (but funny) jokes and knowing nostalgia. (If I wasn’t pressed for time, I’d have something to say about how setting a film thirty years in the past allows context legibility, as we think we know all about 1972 in ways that 2012 still feels very strange and to-be-determined.) Dark Shadows works in bits and pieces, the overarching plot never as interesting as the film’s various moments. The fish-out-of-time aspect is tolerable despite its overused nature, the special effects aren’t bad, there are some surprisingly racy/violent moments and the fantastic is well-integrated with the comic (some of the best gags coming from a lack of reverence toward supernatural tropes.) Where Dark Shadows doesn’t work as well is in trying to present a consistent viewing experience: the straightforward plotting is a bit dull, but the tone of the film keeps going back and forth between avowed camp, earned gothic drama or crowd-pleasing fantastic adventure. It’s not entirely satisfying… but it is fun, and that certainly counts for something after a few dour entries in Burton’s filmography.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Melancholia, but I expected it to be interesting. “Dogme 95” director Lars von Trier isn’t usually associated with science-fiction or special effects, so seeing him handle a spectacular end-of-the-world disaster film had its own particular fascination. There’s little in Melancholia that’s conventional, of course: it opens with a series of exquisitely photographed slow-motion portraits expressing the film that will follow. Then we’re boldly thrown into an hour-long dramatic first section that seldom even acknowledges the ultimate science-fictional aims of the film. This first hour is all about a young woman getting married and causing/suffering the worst day of her life. The key to Melancholia is the idea that depressed people cope well with apocalyptic situations. After that, the dramatic dynamics of second half of the film, describing in an intimate setting the reaction to impending disaster, makes perfect sense: The depressive is unaffected, the rational shatters under stress, the normal retreats into shock and the innocent isn’t aware of what’s going on. It may be a frustratingly slow film, but it’s more than occasionally beautiful in its own way, and it forces actors such as Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland to show some real acting capabilities. (Particularly Dunst, too-often dismissed in more superficial roles.) For SF fans, it’s fascinating to see how carefully von Trier limits his scope: isolated location, four characters, scientific jargon that acknowledges the hard-science behind the scenario while using it for more fanciful purposes. It’s also a revealing take on material that would be treated far differently in a pure-genre film. Best seen on a small screen with plenty of distractions on-hand (it is a rather slow-paced film, and often skips over connective material), Melancholia nonetheless has its own languid appeal, a cozy catastrophe brought to the screen and an intimate exploration of a subject that, handled more conventionally, would seem downright ordinary.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) Zombie movies are a dime-a-dozen these days, but French horror film La Horde has a slight distinctive kick to it: It begins as a crime thriller, with a bunch of vengeful cops infiltrating a run-down high-rise. As the first act begins, however, it tilts into horror mode as the zombie apocalypse descends upon Paris and forces the cops to make a very temporary alliance with the criminals they meant to hunt down. The rest is progressively large-scale zombie-killing mayhem, shot in tight grim urban shots. It’s meant to feel claustrophobic and generally succeeds as such. The ho-hum beginning may not be particularly effective, but the second-act turn is effectively handled and by the end of the film we get a few good set-pieces. (The best of which being a hopeless siege against “The Horde” from the top of a small car.) Alas, La Horde doesn’t lead anywhere but to fan-service: The credits roll over a barely-satisfying conclusion that takes the easy way out rather than explore what happens afterward. There’s nothing special about the characters or the dialogue (Out of consideration for people sleeping in the next room, I ended up reading the English subtitles rather than listening to the original French soundtrack –heresy!) but the direction is straightforward, as is the grimy cinematography. Horror fans, especially zombie enthusiasts looking for their next fix, will get what they’re looking for from the grim La Horde. On the other hand, skeptical viewers may not be converted to the virtues of the zombie film by this straight-gore, no-social-relevance derivative effort.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) Only in so-called “character studies” would twenty minutes of plot be stretched over a total running time of ninety. Still, let’s not dismiss Shame solely on pains of pacing: As a portrait of a New Yorker struggling with (well, sometimes enjoying) sexual addiction, writer/director Steve McQueen’s film reminds us that there is a place for frank explorations of sexual impulses within adult cinema. (It proudly received an NC-17 rating.) Shame is chockablock with nudity and simulated intercourse, but it’s also a melancholic portrait of a lost man refusing to connect in meaningful ways. Michael Fassbender is magnificent in a brutally naked performance that led to some much-deserved critical acclaim. It’s not hard to see where Shame could have been tightened into a snappier, more audience-friendly version: as it is, it’s a film best watched while doing meaningless chores. But McQueen’s choices can be as exhilarating as they are indulgent: for every overlong rendition of “New York, New York”, there’s an absorbing long shot of a nighttime jog, or a conversation exposing the film’s theme in a single uninterrupted shot. Shame has the qualities of its flaws and some arresting images as well. It’s an unusual film, and while it may pander to the usual art-house clichés, it also works for those who may resist the kind of aimless, shameless, conclusion-less drama it embraces. At the very least, it offers a startling revelation: in mainstream cinema, you want to fast-forward through the sex scenes themselves.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) As Mr. Mom nearly celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, it’s best to consider it as a film of its time, when it was easier to get laughs from the inversion of stereotypical gender roles. A father staying home to take care of the kids while his wife works a professional job? Hi-la-rious, with a large helping of male anxiety as side-dish. Social conventions have evolved a bit since then, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean the film hasn’t aged well. Sure, many of the pop-culture gags (or musical cues) are now nigh-incomprehensible to younger audiences, the pacing feels slow at times but John Hugues’ script exists in a nice reality worth visiting. Compared to more recent parenthood comedies, Mr. Mom doesn’t indulge in grossness or offensiveness: it’s pleasant enough, and has enough material for stars Michael Keaton and Teri Garr to shine through. There are a smattering of clever lines (“220, 221 –whatever it takes”) and a few good moments: The comedy hits its stride mid-way through as Keaton’s character reaches an accommodation with his parenthood duties, first badly and then more maturely. The soap-opera-inspired sequence is hilarious, even though it’s a bit of a departure from the tone of the rest of the film. While the film’s predictability and gentleness may not amount to nothing more than an entertaining time-waster, Mr. Mom still works at what it tries to do, and offers a window back to early-eighties attitudes.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) I’m intrigued by directing team Neveldine/Taylor’s high-energy, high-risk, quasi-experimental approach to their films. At their best, they can score big laughs and deliver memorable moments. At their worst, though… it’s all juvenile nonsense and headache-inducing jump-cuts for ninety straight minutes. While Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is noticeably more entertaining that the first limp 2008 incarnation of the character, it’s still not very good –although in a different way. There’s no doubt that Neveldine/Taylor are making an action film here, and that they have tried to re-tool the Ghost character in a far more dynamic fashion. The ever-entertaining Nicolas Cage seems game to play along, mugging for the camera even when CGIed to a flaming skull. Some of the action sequences have pep to them, although they remain best described than seen. It’s very cool to imagine Ghost Rider taking control of a massive excavator or fighting an opponent on top vehicles rushing down a deserted highway. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as cool to see the flurry of disconnected images that end up presenting the final events. Neverldine/Taylor have good visual imaginations and an amusing self-awareness, but they need to learn some discipline in order to make their better moments shine. As it is, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance feels like a barely-digested blend of good and bad. The humor works from time to time, some of the Romania/Turkey scenery is nice, the action beats have potential; the decaying villains are more interesting than usual… but it doesn’t work together nearly as well as it should. For all of the competent actors assembled here (Ciarán Hinds! Christopher Lambert! Idris Elba!) and the distinctiveness of Neveldine/Taylor’s direction, we’re left with a montage reel of interesting things rather than a movie worth watching from beginning to end.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) There is nothing special about Crisis Point, and at times it seems as if this is entirely intentional. This film wouldn’t have existed without the perverse consequences of cultural protectionism: Canada assigns movie-channel network licenses on the condition that they broadcast at least X% of Canadian content, so there is a captive market for cheap Canadian movies. Quality is not a priority for films sporting the TMN/Super Écran/Movie Central logos in the credit sequence, and Crisis Point seems blander than most. The linear storyline seems painfully familiar even from the lengthy get-go: After a hostage negotiator bungles a case, she finds herself targeted in a subsequent bank robbery. Montréal stands-in for Detroit, but the limited budget ensures that there’s no leaving the land of cheap “made for TV” films: the editing is slack, the cinematography is sparse and some stock footage jumps out. Rhona Mitra headlines as the protagonist, but Crisis Point’s script is as by-the-numbers as they come: the lifeless plot isn’t helped along by a rhythm that takes forever to go anywhere. The beginning is interminable, the ending never seems to end, and the film feels very, very long even at its mandated 90-minutes duration. It’s hard to imagine anyone outside Crisis Point’s cast and crew being actually excited about the product they have delivered to the maw of the cable channels. Even excuses about how the film isn’t terrible, about the jobs created along the way, about the experience that the cast and crew got from the production don’t really excuse the fact that the final result is dull and formulaic. The budget constraints must be painful, but it doesn’t cost much more to pay for a script that actually generates some narrative momentum, features compelling dialogue or creates characters we haven’t seen a thousand times before. Sure, we Canadians enjoy seen home-grown content on-screen… but it’s even better when it’s actually any good.
(On-demand video, October 2012) If you’re wondering why this Clive Owen film was never widely distributed in North America, keep in mind a few things: First, Intruders is a modestly-budgeted European production. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an unremarkable horror movie with a confusing threat, a deceptive structure and muted chills. There isn’t much to say about the average thrills of seeing children and their parents cope with bogeymen, especially with the by-the-numbers scare sequences. There’s one neat twist in this film, but it pushes credibility at the same time it manages to explain a few troublesome plot points. Indulgent viewers will feel that the film has something to say about the power of storytelling and how our minds create reality; others will just complain that the monster has no clearly-identified limits and that it seems made up as it goes along. Fortunately, Clive Owen himself is better than the average material he’s being served, while Carice van Houten has a welcome supporting role as his wife, and Ella Purnell has a strong enough performance as a tormented girl to suggest bigger roles later in her career. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo knows how to create atmosphere and doesn’t embarrass himself with the limits of his budget (although some of the skyscraper scenes look a bit off from a special-effects point of view.) Intruders ends up living in the netherworld of the unremarkable horror film: good enough to avoid disappointment (or cult-classic awfulness), but not really good enough to stick in mind aside from that troublesome plot twist.
(On-demand video, October 2012) My first thought after seeing a title like “The Tall Man” and reading a plot description involving missing children was to wonder if the “Slender Man” Internet meme had made it on-screen. Alas (maybe), The Tall Man defies a number of assumptions, and not having any relationship whatsoever with Slendy is the least of its narrative transgressions. Initially presented as a horror movie about a mother searching for her abducted son in a small town that has seen a wave of child abductions, The Tall Man turns out to be something quite a bit different than just another horror thriller with a generic monster. After a conventional (but well-executed) beginning, the middle act of the film defies our assumptions about the protagonist and the nature of the film. The overlong last act limply completes the transformation from horror thriller to provocative drama, leading to a flurry of questions, doubts and hesitations about the film’s true intent. Is it social commentary smuggled underneath a glossy patina of horror, or a horror film that loses its nerve? Does the ending lead to eucatastrophe or unsettling doubts? (“Right? Right?”) This particular issue has been better-addressed in one of Ben Affleck’s movie (I’m obviously dancing around spoilers here), but there’s something almost admirable to the way The Tall Man commits itself to a full-blown chase sequence knowing fully well the revelation it has in store for audiences later on. Writer/Director Pascal Laugier established himself as quite the iconoclast with Martyrs, and if The Tall Man is more mainstream-friendly, it’s certainly not your average straight-to-video thriller. It’s relatively well-shot, sports a decent budget and Jessica Biel gamely incarnates the main character, lending her sympathetic personae to a character that requires a bit of misdirection. Elsewhere in the film, Jodelle Ferland turns in another noteworthy performance as a character that becomes increasingly important as the film advances (in-between this, the third Twilight and a lengthy filmography on Canadian TV, she’s probably due for a breakout role soon enough). I suspect that The Tall Man will divide audiences: annoy horror fans, while intriguing those who are always looking for a bit more substance in their genre films. While the social message may not be all that well-integrated, the attempt seems interesting enough to warrant a look.
(On-demand video, October 2012) Horror fans won’t have to think twice about whether to see this film: The Cabin in the Woods is as essential a horror film as any in the past few years. A gleeful deconstruction of the good-old “cabin in the woods” horror scenario, it’s a commentary as much as it’s a comedy. It takes the good old tropes and plays with them until they fall apart. I have some evidence that the film won’t play very well to an audience that is unfamiliar with horror films, making it even more specially targeted (for better or for worse) to a specific public. Coming from geek-favorite co-writer Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods is a blast-and-a-half for those in the know. Is it perfect? Of course not: one danger with parodying tropes is forgetting a few, and it sure seems as if one “upstairs sabotage” plot thread has been left dangling. (My theory involves the audience getting bored.) Still, what the film does manage to deliver is enough to mandate a viewing. It helps that The Cabin in the Woods is competently-made: Goddard knows how to deliver the laughs, and the actors do passable jobs in the roles they’re given. Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz and Richard Jenkins stand out, by virtue of their places in the plot as much as anything else. There’s plenty of freeze-frame fun, and the film does a fine job at playing with the demands of the various genres it has taken on. For a while, The Cabin in the Woods is going to be the horror movie to watch with friends and that’s great: the horror genre was taking itself a bit seriously lately what with the icky torture-porn trend, and this is a welcome corrective. One final note about spoilers: it’s perfectly possible to spoil yourself rotten about the film, and still enjoy it immensely… so don’t panic if you think you already know too much.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) My appreciation for Anonymous is severely limited by my lack of interest regarding the Shakespeake Authorship question. Call me a Stratfordian, if you think I care: I’m not a good audience for conspiracy theories, and the one featured in this film is so ludicrous that it repeatedly challenges any suspension of disbelief. But let’s give Anonymous the benefit of its premise, which is to say that Shakespeare’s plays were truly written by a nobleman who wished to conceal his identity: How well does the film manage to execute this idea? At first, not very well: while the film begins with a superb framing device seamlessly taking modern audiences back in time, it quickly hobbles itself with confusing character introductions, blunt nestled flashbacks five-then-forty years earlier and a lack of grace in the way it sets up its plot elements. Fortunately, the ride gets smoother once the premise is established and the pieces finally start moving in the direction of a political thriller. Still, the ending will challenge viewers, as every-harder-to-accept revelations are piled on until credulity snaps and even viewers without deep knowledge of the period will understand that it’s all fantasy. (For a so-called virgin queen, Elizabeth I in this film had enough illegitimate kids to keep a daycare facility busy.) While the structure of the plot is distinctively unusual, there are still a lot of unpleasant edges in the script that could have used some polishing. Fortunately, Anonymous isn’t all about the writing: The biggest thrill of the film is a gorgeously presented Elizabethan-era London, including a convincing re-creation of the Globe theater. Director Roland Emmerich may have issues with scripts (see; well, his entire filmography) but his eye for striking cinematography remains intact. He also lucked out with a few capable actors in key roles: Rhys Ifans becomes a fascinating Edward de Vere, a complex figure who never manages to reconcile his desires with what is expected of him as the Earl of Oxford. (He gets the film’s best lines as he explains his compulsion to write.) Elizabeth I is also cleverly incarnated by a mother/daughter pair: Vanessa Redgrave as the elder queen comfortable in the power of her station, and Joely Richardson as her red-hot younger self. It amounts to a surprisingly engaging film despite the imperfect, perhaps fundamentally flawed film. Anonymous works quite a bit better as a gonzo historical fantasy than an attempt to tell a true story –you don’t have to look long to find accounts of historians laughing themselves to tears over the film. Historical accuracy aside, it’s a film with a surprisingly strong list of assets, and I won’t let my basic disagreement about its premise blind me to its merits. Have a look… but don’t believe a single word of it.
(On-demand, October 2012) Most romantic comedies end up when both protagonists are reasonably certain to stay together, but what happens afterwards? The Five-Year Engagement starts with a marriage proposal and then cackles as the protagonists can never completely manage to finalize their wedding plans… for years. Exasperation sets in for the characters, although viewers will be entertained to see Jason Segel (in his usual vulnerable good-guy persona; he co-wrote the script) and Emily Blunt try to figure out the rest of their lives. More sweet than funny, The Five-Year Engagement is stronger on supporting characters and awkward gags than it is at an overarching plot and structure –much of the overlong second act repeats itself, while elements of the third act notably seem too convenient at that stage of the script. What makes the film enjoyable are the performances –not only from the lead actors, but from the colorful supporting cast as well. While the film may not be on solid grounds in some details (if I eat stale doughnuts before they are replaced by new ones, I get twice as many doughnuts, and let’s not kid ourselves: even day-old doughnuts are delicious), it’s a script that has a few unusual things to say about the Happily Ever After part that other movies neglect to explore. (It’s interesting to note that comedy mega-producer Judd Apatow has been mining the less-often-explored aspects of romance for a while, and that the results are usually worth a look.) While The Five-Year Engagement may not be the ultimate or funniest take on the idea of a very long engagement (somehow, you’d expect bigger, clearer and more unpredictable obstacles), there’s enough left on the table to warrant a look.
(On-demand, October 2012) Paying homage to Edgar Allan Poe by turning him into an action/thriller hero has a certain allure, but it quickly leads to a number of debatable artistic choices. The easiest way to feature elements of Poe’s oeuvre, for instance, is to adopt a structure in which Poe turns into an investigator working against… a serial killer copycatting Poe’s macabre stories. It doesn’t help when a few of the murders are staged with an off-putting amount of elaborate gore (one of them worse than a similar scene in the Saw series). This clash between historical verisimilitude and contemporary Hollywood storytelling shouldn’t be surprising after similarly modern takes on (say) Sherlock Holmes, but it does reinforce the contrived nature of The Raven. John Cusack lends a considerable amount of cool to the character of Poe, his performance giving an unqualified boost to the film even at it takes it further into historical inaccuracy. (For the nadir, wait until the antagonist predicts the existence of horror movies.) The cinematography, costuming and other period details all have their moments, presenting a bustling version of mid-nineteenth-century Baltimore with a welcome amount of spooky atmosphere. The ending is just as unsatisfying as the opening text foretells, although it does dovetail clumsily with the commonly-accepted facts of Poe’s last days. What’s more damaging, alas, is the sense of déjà-vu that comes to dominate The Raven: We know how it’s going to go, not because we know about Poe, but because we’ve seen enough serial killer movies already. While Poe living today may very well have written gore-filled murder mysteries, one suspects that he wouldn’t be satisfied just following genre conventions.