The Woman in Black (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Woman in Black</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, November 2012) There’s something deliciously old-fashioned in this gothic throwback to an era where horror films were about chills rather than gore.  Here, Daniel Radcliffe isn’t too bad in his first major post-Harry Potter film role as a young solicitor asked to settle the affairs of a deceased aristocrat.  The tiny community in which he arrives is hostile to his presence for reasons he understands only after spending some time in a vast and spooky house cut off by the high tide.  While much of the film is fairly standard supernatural horror, it’s handled with an unusual amount of grace, letting the slow pacing and the carefully creepy visuals take precedence over exposed blood and guts.  There are a few visual gems–the sequence with a gunk-covered carriage solely identifiable in reflected light is remarkably effective and the lengthy overnight exploration of a gothic mansion positively drips with atmosphere.  Though suitably different from Susan Hill’s original novel, the adaptation is skillful in condensing events in an even tighter time-frame.  There are a few narrative ironies here and there (one of the best being that the protagonist’s early ally, played with gravitas by Ciaran Hinds, is the one that’s mistaken about the nature of the events taking place whereas all of his opponents are basically right) to enliven what is basically yet another ghost story, but The Woman in Black is well-made enough to deserve a favourable mention, especially or those looking for a more unnerving and less gory kind of horror film.

Savages (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Savages</strong> (2012)

(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre.  Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes.  Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek.  All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away.  What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time.  Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film.  No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.)  Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through.  Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation.  It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film.  Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.

Magic Mike (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Magic Mike</strong> (2012)

(On-demand Video, November 2012) This could have been a disposable film in so many ways.  There isn’t much, on paper, to distinguish Magic Mike from countless other similar cookie-cutter films: This may be about a young man’s initiation to the quasi-criminal world of dance (er: male stripping), but we’ve seen variations on that tale so many times that the film could have chosen the tried-and-true dance-or-crime-movie formula.  But it doesn’t and it’s not entirely because of director Steven Soderbergh’s steadfast refusal to play by the usual rules.  Never mind the long takes, over-filtered cinematography, pseudo-realist camera work or extended dance/strip numbers: Magic Mike is perhaps more interesting in the choices it makes as a script.  While this is partly about an initiation into male stripping, the lead character is the one trying to get out.  While this may be a romance, it’s one that barely begins by the time the credits roll and all the other subplots remain unfulfilled.  While the characters are recognizably archetypes, they defy cliché and transcend their narrative functions by becoming fully-featured creations.  Then there’s the drawn-out stripping numbers, which are far more about dance and musical choreography than about bare male flesh.  (Ironically for a film about male stripping, the most noteworthy nudity is a topless Olivia Munn.  Well, that and a prominent pump thankfully off-focus.)  Fortunately, Magic Mike can count upon a few exceptional performances to, ahem, flesh out the characters.  Matthew McConaughey extends his range a bit farther by playing a slimy stripper/manager, his usual bare chest covering a darker character than usual.  But it’s Channing Tatum, in the wake of the surprisingly-good 21 Jump Street, who impresses the most as a “stripper/entrepreneur” conflicted between easy money and self-respect.  Alex Pettyfer also turns in his least annoying performance yet in what is assuredly his best movie so far.  Magic Mike certainly isn’t perfect (Soderbergh’s directorial choices easily cross over from “clever” to “showy”, leading one to wonder if he’s even capable of being mainstream) and the inconclusive finale seems a bit too focused to satisfy, but it all amounts to a surprisingly better film than any plot summary may suggest. 

The Aristocats (1970)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Aristocats</strong> (1970)

(On-demand Video, November 2012) Thirty-some years and countless more animated features later, this semi-classic hand-drawn Disney effort (“semi-classic” as in: not as favourably reviewed or best-known as many other Disney animated films, but still widely recognized) is still an impressive piece of work.  Never mind the inconsistent inking: The Aristocats is an astonishing piece of work, the animation of the lead characters fluid and expressive enough to impress even at the digital age.  The script may be straightforward, but the character work is impressive, and a pair of catchy songs give a lot of extra value to a film that is scarcely more than 75 minutes long.  This is a kid’s film (the slapstick alone proves it) but the kitten protagonists are cute enough to melt anyone’s heart into a giggle of awwws.  Extra points are to be given for a Maurice Chevalier song, and a cheerfully anachronistic sequence featuring jazzy cats with psychedelic lighting.  The Aristocats is a very cute film, and that’s pretty much all the charm it needs to succeed even today.

(Second-through-fiftieth viewings, toddler-watching, In French, On Blu-Ray, January 2014) Here’s a new bit to add in the critical lexicon: “toddler-watching” a movie, or, what happens when you end up seeing a movie fifty times alongside a toddler. This does not mean sitting through a film fifty times entirely: it means catching the film in bits and pieces are the toddler wanders off, needs something from the kitchen, wants to see the same musical numbers five times in a row, or needs to skip over the scary parts. While the cinephile in myself is overtly horrified by this collage approach to watching a film, the parent with his finger on the remote is pretty happy that background movie-watching exists. So it is that endlessly revisiting The Aristocats remains a fun experience even the fiftieth time in. By the time I can hum even the incidental musical cues, the flaws of the film are obvious: the story meanders, some set-pieces exist in their own universe, the Paris-1910 setting is practically useless, there are a few unfortunate stereotypes, the animation is sub-standard by Disney standards (despite the gorgeous restoration work on Blu-Ray, the key-frame lines suddenly appear and disappear… to the point where the film is almost better seen on DVD) and the best musical numbers are a bit too short. On the other hand, it’s a film practically devoid of any kind of scary content, the animal characters are just adorable and the musical numbers are, indeed, quite enjoyable. (I particularly like the title song, the end of “Scales and Arpeggios” and, of course, the floor-shattering climax of “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat”) If my daughter’s happy watching the cats sing and make their way home, then who am I to argue?

Savages, Don Winslow

<em class="BookTitle">Savages</em>, Don Winslow

Simon & Schuster, movie tie-in reprint edition of 2010 original, 336 pages, C$17.00 tp, ISBN 978-1-4516-6715-8

Life is filled with regrets, and as a dedicated reader, one of mine is that there’s simply not enough time in the world to read all the books I want to read.  (Especially given that I intend to spend the next few years raising my infant daughter rather than reading voraciously.)  I know my own corner of genre fiction pretty well, but there are so many other good books out there that I can’t possibly hope to read them all.  But then again, maybe that’s a feature of the reading universe rather than a bug –it means that there are always, and forever will be, great books to read.  Wonders await the constant reader.

In this case, I’m quite specifically happy to have discovered Don Winslow and Savages.  It took Oliver Stone’s film adaptation to bring me to the novel, but no matter: Savages is a great contemporary crime novel, told in a vivid and efficient style that had me reading the book in the kind of happy trance that I only get from exceptional fiction.

Little of the impact of the book can be guessed from a synopsis of the plot, although much of the novel’s hip contemporary flavour certainly comes through: In early-2009 South California, two boutique drug entrepreneurs are targeted by a Mexican drug cartel: The cartels love their superior product but wish to muscle in on their profits.  When the two small-time dealers try to opt out of the “deal”, things quickly escalate when the young woman who loves them equally (yes, this means exactly what you think it does) is kidnapped and held against their cooperation.  Before long, our protagonists are pitting corrupt DEA agents against a crime matriarch and her brutal enforcer.

As a pathological reader with a professional sideline in film reviewing, I have learned a long time ago that it’s always best to go from film to novel, appreciating the way a novel expands upon the events of the film.  Savages does something more, though: while the film adds an unnecessary meta-fictional trick at the end of the story (one that both softens and weakens the hard ending of the novel), the book will surprise movie viewers and please readers through sheer style.  From the very first chapter (solely composed of a popular two-word obscenity) onward, it’s clear that Winslow’s not content with the usual objective tight-third-person hum-drum narration.  Oh no: Savages roars on full-octane style.  Ellipses, parentheses, in-your-face omniscient narration, interrupted sentences, impressionistic fragments, script excerpts, invented vocabulary (as in “PAQU” for Passive-Aggressive Queen of the Universe), short paragraphs, punchy sentences are all part of Winslow’s arsenal here and the result is one constantly absorbing read from beginning to end.

Despite the economy of words, Winslow also ends up a surprisingly funny writer.  Never mind the implied dialogue between narrator and reader (“and no, there won’t be a quiz at the end because we’re talking about stoners here” [P.21]).  Have a look at this paragraph describing the qualities of a particularly potent strain of marijuana:

This was a plant that could almost get up, walk around, find a lighter, and fire itself up.  Read Wittgenstein, have deep conversations about the meaning of life with you, cocreate a television series for HBO, cause peace in the Middle East (“ The Israelis and Palestinians could coexist in two parallel universes, sharing space but not time”).  It took a strong man –or a strong woman, in O’s case –to take more than one hit of the Ultra White Widow. [P.37]

Hilarious… and Savages is filled with passages such as this one.  It amounts to a memorable reading experience that trades heft for speed and impact: It’s a short novel, but one that fully rewards the reader.  As a look at the modern drug business, it feels credible.  But it’s as a piece of storytelling that Savages shines best.  I haven’t read a novel told quite like this before, and I do like the result.  I may currently be in the middle of a self-imposed moratorium on buying new books, but once I get back to my addict ways, Don Winslow is on the list of authors who deserve some further attention.

A Little Bit Zombie (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">A Little Bit Zombie</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, November 2012) Canadian horror spoof A Little Bit Zombie often shows its low budget and inexperienced filmmaker credentials, but it’s earnest enough to end up feeling charming rather than irritating.  The premise has to do with a groom-to-be turning “just a bit” zombie during a weekend retreat at the family cabin, and two zombie-hunters with different approaches to his predicament.  Much of the gags are about a mild-mannered man transforming into an inept zombie, his aggressive fiancé or the couple tagging along with them.  A Little Bit Zombie is funnier than it is gory, and generally amiable in the way it exploits its character dynamics: the first twenty minutes are a bit of a slog and the too-abrupt non-ending does not satisfy, but the middle has a few gags and turns that one wouldn’t necessarily expect.  The tone is a bit unfocused and veers too often toward broad slapstick, but it does manage to hit its targets once in a while and Kristopher Turner turns in an essential performance as the reluctantly zombifying groom-to-be.  There’s a bit of deliberate cheesecake (Catfight!  Girls tarting themselves up!  Emilie Ullerup with glasses!)  that feels more amusing than exploitative, with much of the same to be said about the gore and the occasional swearing.  Highlights include a deliberately cheesy faux-sitcom scene, a groovy homage to Evil Dead and a sequence with a bunny.  Lowlights include an ending that doesn’t solve much, pacing lulls (especially with the zombie-hunters) and gags that are milked too long.  Shot near Sudbury by relatively new director Casey Walker, A Little Bit Zombie doesn’t have the budget or filmmaking fluidity to fully satisfy the demands of its script, but it’s worth seeing at least once for anyone even remotely sympathetic to zombie films… and it’s a charming example of a low-budget Canadian film that tries.

Rock of Ages (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Rock of Ages</strong> (2012)

(On-demand video, November 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals and as such I’m pretty happy with Rock of Ages, which grabs eighties-rock songs and re-shapes them into a straightforward musical about finding love and success in 1987 Hollywood.  Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta do well as the dull young couple anchoring the story, but the rest of the cast shines.  Alec Baldwin is hilarious as an aging rock-will-never-die club owner, Paul Giamatti is perfect as a slimy impresario and Catherine Zeta-Jones is amusing as a socialite with a revealing past.  Still, they’re not the best of what Rock of Ages has to offer: Russell Brand steals his scenes with lines that sound tailor-made for his personae but even he takes a step back whenever Tom Cruise chews the scenery as rock god Stacee Jaxx.  Cruise-as-Jaxx transposes and perverts his movie-star status into a related realm, and if Cruise seems more accomplished than unleashed as a self-destructing icon, it’s still a great performance in a pivotal role.  Music-wise, Rock of Ages will have you humming “I Wanna Rock”, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (among others) for days, even though the movie’s soundtrack may not compare to the original versions of the songs.  I’m told that the movie’s plot is considerably happier and simpler than the original musical, (although it keeps the vexing two-act structure leading to a mid-movie lull) but director Adam Shankman’s adaptation is also able to weave song medleys around characters doing their own things separately –at best, it’s an exhilarating example of the creative freedom offered by well-produced cinema.  While Rock of Ages may be a fluffy fantasy loosely connected to the anthem-rock era, it’s bouncy and fun and just as entertaining as it wants to be.  But I did say that I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals.