(On Cable TV, February 2013) I was really hoping that this film would be good. After all, this is (more or less) the same crew of filmmakers that got their start producing sci-fi parody series Star Wreck in a converted apartment. To see them ascend to the lower rungs of the B-movie world with Iron Sky is a bit of a triumph for DIY filmmakers; a proof that sci-fi fans with enough drive and talent can end up involved in pro-level filmmaking. And for a few minutes at a time, Iron Sky is an impressive piece of work. The special-effects in the film are top-notch, and the ludicrous premise of Nazis hiding in a base on the far side of the moon is good for a few conceptual chuckles. Sadly, the best moments of Iron Sky are ruined as soon as characters start talking, or when the script starts mugging for laughs. To put it bluntly, Iron Sky falls into the age-old trap of presenting a bad script with good special effects. But the bad script isn’t just bad in Hollywood’s charmingly “dumb and generic” way: it’s actively bad in that it’s riddled with dated humor (Sarah Palin jokes in 2012, really?), incoherence, on-the-nose dialogue, meaningless moments and unacceptable racial stereotypes. (For a film that congratulates itself on laughing at Nazis, Iron Sky has perhaps the single worst jive-talking black character I’ve seen in a looong time.) The dumb moments extend to a parody of the “Mad Hitler” Internet meme inserted without much grace, extend to a lack of narrative connectivity as events jump all over the place without being connected smoothly, and go all the way to a downer of an ending that flies in the face of the film’s comedy until then. Not even Julia Dietze as a repentant Nazi schoolteacher can make up for those low points. To be fair, though, the special effects are very nice, and the film’s most amusing moments come in the last act as a terrestrial fleet of spacecrafts go fighting it out over the Moon, facing an iPod-powered Nazi death machine. There’s enough here to make a viewing worthwhile (especially to SF fans, special effects geeks or DIY filmmakers looking for inspiration) but Iron Sky simply should have been much, much better than this.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) There is a curious tension at work during Cleanskin, a British thriller opposing ideological terrorists and the special operatives chasing them down. While the film may indulge in a series of excessively violent episodes in which covert operatives are cleared kill terrorists by any means necessary, it’s also willing to allow itself a lengthy series of flashbacks to explain how a politically-motivated student can take up terrorism as a cause. At times, Cleanskin shows terrible mistakes by government agents before taking a late-film turn into conspiracy theories. Does this mean that the film is complex, or merely incoherent? There’s no right answer if viewers are willing to view the film solely as a genre exercise, where “might makes right” isn’t incompatible with vaguely leftish good sentiments. What’s more certain is that Sean Bean turns in an efficient performance as an Afghanistan veteran pressed into service as a ruthless killer; the film gets weaker the longer it spends away from him, such as in the interminable flashback scenes explaining the life history of the lead terrorist. (The other noteworthy performance in the film belongs to Silas Carson, who brings bone-chilling menace to a relatively minor role.) It does seem, at time, that Cleanskin is trying to be a mean-and-lean action thriller with shoot-‘em-down villains even as it tries to bring ambiguity and complexity in a more dramatic framework. It doesn’t entirely work if only for pacing reasons: Just as the film seems to accelerate on a thriller level, it stops dead for half an hour of dramatic background that doesn’t do much but muddy the waters. While there is a lot to admire in the final result, there is also a bit too much in the final mix. For a film that is so good at being without frills, the added fat just takes away from what could have been a truly better thriller.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) There’s an underappreciated movie genre out there that, for lack of a better expression, I’ll call the “cool subculture home movie” genre, in which low-budget filmmakers team up with a group of talented young people specializing in something cool/dangerous. Examples include 2002’s Extreme Heist / Wicked Game (stunt-people decide to make their own movie), 2003’s Quattro Noza / Streets of Legend (L.A. street-racers decide to make their own movie) and now Freerunner (Parkour enthusiasts decide to make their own movie). All of those films are terrible in so many ways, but some of them have one or two cool moments. So it is that Freerunner is nearly unwatchable for its first half-hour: atrocious jittery camerawork, dull actors, bland screenwriting, annoying characters, washed-out cinematography and tepid pacing all combine to send viewers lower and lower in the cinematic scale of mediocrity. The free-running stunts that should have been impressive to see are made boring by a camera that can’t seem to sit still for a single moment. The lead character’s difficulties are uninteresting. And the film courts self-parody by lingering far too long on Rebecca Da Costa during a hum-drum singing performance that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. No one would be blamed for stopping the film at that point. But thirty-five minutes in, something truly deranged happens, as the free-runners are captured, equipped with exploding collars and thrust in the middle of a deadly game show for rich sadists. Casey Durkin provides Freerunner’s best moments as she explains the rules of the game in front of a non-shaky camera, then gratuitously exposes herself while saying “enjoy looking at those [breasts], boys, because they’re the last most of you are likely to see”. Hilarious… although by that time it’s easy to be desperate for nudity and cheap jokes as a way out of the film’s morass. Despite the ultra-low-budget filmmaking, terrible screenwriting, and uninspired direction, Freerunner has enough of a spark after that to keep viewers interested, although it never rises above the level of a bad film. As a parkour stunt demonstration, the occasional moments of cool are sabotaged by the direction and careless disregard for physics. The plot developments are botched, and the characters are dull enough as to disappear without trace from the story once they are too-graphically dispatched. It’s still a terrible and unpleasant film, at its best when it goes for blatant exposition and bottom-drawer humor. Even as a “cool subculture home movie”, it fails at its own objective. Watch District B13 again, instead.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) As the frontier between small theatrical and big direct-to-video releases keeps blurring, it’s not much a surprise to find out that decent thrillers can pass almost unnoticed in theaters before making a bigger splash in as on-demand releases. So it is that we have Stolen, a meat-and-potato thriller directed by veteran Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider, Expendables 2, etc) featuring the ever-unhinged Nicholas Cage popping up without much theatrical fanfare in 144 theaters across North America before arriving on home video. While Stolen isn’t a great movie, it’s handled with some screenwriting finesse, directing energy and acting skill when compared to a lot of other theatrical releases (such as the similarly-themed Taken 2). There isn’t much to the “genius bank robber is forced back into action after his daughter is kidnapped by an ex-partner” plot, but West’s direction keeps things moving, the script has unexpected moments of cleverness, the New Orleans backdrop is colorful enough (especially when you compare it to other films such as Deja Vu, 12 Rounds or even Hard Target) and the film doesn’t waste a lot of time. Sure, it’s ludicrously-plotted, with enough contrivances, coincidences and conveniences to fill a duffel bag. The dialogue isn’t stellar. The characters are barely sketched. But it’s not difficult to watch, and there’s a rough narrative drive to it all. Nicolas Cage gets a few moments of typical freaking-out, and it’s always enjoyable to see a solid actor like Danny Huston get a few moments to himself. The point being: Stolen is better than Taken 2, and as good as a few films with much wider releases. It’s an acceptable way to spend a quiet evening, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) If you accept the premise that comedies are supposed to make viewers laugh, then there are few more depressing feelings than watching one and waiting for the laughs to begin… only to be confronted with the end credits. Space Milkshake (which, unless I’m mistaken and I’m not about to go back to find out, features no milkshakes) is one of those laugh-free comedies where you wonder if the screenwriter spent any time thinking about jokes beyond the obvious word-blender silliness. Oh, so there are space garbagemen working a space station invaded by a villain showing up as a rubber duck? Fine: now bring in the jokes. Alas, Space Milkshake seems so intent on replicating an alien-invader-in-space plot structure that it becomes remarkably dull. The characters are generally unlikable, leading to dull banter and interminable “character moments”, the jokes fall flat, the plot goes exactly where you think it’s going, and the whole film seems more perfunctory than pleasant. (Heck, a character gets killed and replaced, and it’s treated as no big thing.) There may be a few things worth enjoying if you look hard enough: Kristin Kreuk looks cute as an electrically-charged robot with bangs, a rubber duck using tentacles to type on a keyboard could be amusing, I guess, and George Takei’s silky-smooth voice automatically raises the level of any production… even a dirt-cheap Canadian film shot in welcoming Regina, Saskatchewan. The film’s direction does show moments of competence given the small budget and the four actors. Still, the result is disappointing: Space Milkshake never meets its own goals, let alone surpass them: Viewers with low expectations may get something out of it, but it’s a cheap and dull comedy that’s not even worth the trouble of watching even when made available for free.
Free Press, 2011, 304 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-7555-2
I first became aware of el Bulli from The Amateur Gourmet’s blog post/webcomic Dinner at El Bulli: The Greatest Restaurant in the World in August 2009. Not being much of a foodie at the time, it was my glimpse into so-called “Molecular Cuisine” (a term everyone seems to hate) and a first look at the legend of el Bulli, a place intent on pushing back the definitions of food. (It definitely left an impression: By February 2011, I was seated at Ottawa’s own Atelier to enjoy the local version of such an experimental restaurant and I still remember it as one of the best meals of my life.)
As of this writing in early 2013, El Bulli has become legendary… something helped along by the restaurant’s decision to close at the end of 2011 to transform itself into a still nebulously-defined “culinary think-tank”. During its heyday, El Bulli was named the top restaurant in the world five successive times. Its chef, Ferran Adrià, has become something of a celebrated genius, an emblem of the new Spanish culinary creativity. As a result, there is little about el Bulli that hasn’t been documented, filmed, described or exclaimed about: There are documentary films, numerous books and countless newspaper articles to quench your thirst for more el Bull goodness.
In this context, what’s left for Lisa Abend to show in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices? Quite a bit, as it turns out: Taking a bottom-up look at el Bulli through the forty-some stagiaires (apprentices) that form the backbone of el Bulli’s workforce. As Abend reveals, the mind-bending high-prep thirty-course nature of el Bulli’s groundbreaking cuisine isn’t made possible by high technology or advanced science: it’s made affordable solely due to the highly-skilled, unpaid labour that volunteered to work at el Bulli for an entire season. The rewards are obvious: who wouldn’t want to hire someone with el Bulli on his resume? Who wouldn’t want a chance to peek over Adrià’s shoulders? Who wouldn’t want to spend a few months working at “the best restaurant in the world”?
There’s a flip-side, of course: Despite el Bulli’s reputation, the truth is that much of the stagiaires’ work is back-breaking rather than groundbreaking. While the working conditions there seem quite a bit better than most restaurants (ample space to move, workspaces that don’t get overly hot, no reed to run or shout, tightly-regulated reservations that takes much of the chaos out of the evening rush), a six-month season at el Bulli involves living in a small rural Spanish city far from their families, with long hours, mindless repetitive work and not much in terms of pay. Abend structures her book around the experiences of roughly a dozen of the stagiaires, exploring their backgrounds, the frequent sacrifices required to get the job and then keep it throughout the year. A number of stagiaires drop out, sometimes happily (getting a job at a prestigious restaurant) and sometimes less so.
Despite spending a long time at the restaurant during the 2009 season, Abend herself remains a discrete presence behind the scenes as she describe the daily rhythm of el Bulli. She presents the stagiaires’ stories simply, doesn’t shy away from delving into their fears and moments of doubt, and in doing so humanizes the el Bulli mythology. Adrià himself remains a formidable presence, but the book wisely shies away from too lengthy contacts with him. This is about the apprentices, not the sorcerer: It’s about the reality of el Bulli rather the mythology… even if the mythology ends up reinforced by the reality.
It does amount to an absorbing read, no matter one’s membership level in the ranks of foodies. There’s some amazing material here in describing how some meals are put together (the crown going to a rose/artichoke plate that’s really roses masquerading as artichokes), and one of the few ways the book could have been better would have been with a stronger visual component to illustrate its subject matter. It’s a well-constructed book with a fascinated subject, and its execution is well above mere competence. What’s not to like? Now that el Bulli has closed, perhaps for good, it’s essential to keep capsule reminders of the way things happened at the restaurant during its heyday.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) The James Bond franchise needed to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in style, and Skyfall is just what critics ordered, especially after the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace on the heels of the invigorating Casino Royale reboot. A surprising, intimate celebration/deconstruction of the Bond mythos, Skyfall feels like the most richly thematic Bond yet, indulging into the British machismo of the character while making him fail at nearly every turn. It’s a film that makes a daring series of choices, by nearly killing off the character, graphically exposing his shortcomings, putting him in the service of the matriarchy, flipping the Bond structure as to put the obligatory winks at the beginning of the picture, and delving deeper into Bond’s back-story than ever before. It also features one of the oddest and most effective villains in recent Bond history, as Javier Bardem flamboyantly (yes, that’s the code word) plays an enemy with a straightforward yearning for vengeance. Director Sam Mendes wasn’t the most obvious choice to direct the film, but his handling of the film is immensely self-assured, delivering neat jolts of action alongside the most character-driven moments. It helps that Daniel Craig here solidifies his take as the most credible Bond since Connery, that Judi Dench can sustain a script heavy on her character, and that Naomie Harris fits perfectly in her role. The film’s cinematography is top-notch, and Skyfall is peppered with great moments from a climax-worthy opening action sequence to a one-shot neon-backlit fight to a masterful villain walk-in. Thematically, the film is rich, with real-world allusions crowding symbolism and dramatic ironies. There are too many issues with Skyfall to qualify it as an unimpeachable masterpiece: There’s a lull at the beginning of the third act, the villain’s plan is one of those convenient “everything has to be just so” house of cards, and the seriousness of the picture is the kind of reinterpretation you can only do once a generation. But Skyfall does complete the franchise re-invention process started by Casino Royale: by the time the credits roll, all the pieces (Q, M, Monneypenny, Bond back in service “with pleasure”) have been put in place for another series of installments, preferably ones that goes back to a less serious take on the character now that it has reset expectations.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) How can a film with a big twist be so predictable? Dream House first appears to be a formula-heavy haunted-house thriller with a family in peril and dark secrets underneath the floorboards. Then it turns into something much stranger, as the supernatural takes a back seat to the delusional and we’re left with a far less interesting murder mystery from a cracked perspective. The biggest problem with such plot twists is that if they don’t work, if they leave the viewers saying “Really?”, then the whole film has imploded on itself, with little left to say. Dream House compounds that issue by making all sorts of little mistakes: While it doesn’t try to end on its end-of-second-act twist, the film is left spinning its wheels for a long time after confessing, making a mockery of the film’s now-barely-comprehensible first half. Also disappointing is the way Dream House dangles a supernatural horror story in front of our noses only to yank it back to “just a crazy person!” and a dull movie-psycho ending. It’s surprising to see actors such as Daniel Craig (as effective as ever), Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts (both wasted in dull roles) in fare best suited for direct-to-video mediocrity. The film does look good, and a few moments could have been more interesting had they been in the service of a better film. It’s said that director Jim Sheridan made a mess out of a substantially different script, but the result is unarguable: As is stands, Dream House is a big wasted opportunity, a series of potentially promising tangents that, eventually, go nowhere.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Flight is the kind of film, once popular, that is now rarely seen as a Hollywood wide-release: A character study of a flawed anti-hero, along with a decidedly un-heroic look at an ethical conundrum. Denzel Washington truly stars as a constantly-intoxicated pilot who manages to save a flight from certain doom after a freak accident: he exploits his screen personae to the fullest in delivering as unpleasant a character as he has managed since Training Day. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as the post-accident investigation process circles around his own failings as a cause of the crash. There are some harrowing thrills as Flight graphically portrays a terrible airplane ride (director Robert Zemekis is nothing if not a technically competent director), but most of the film is just solid drama, all leading up to a climactic scene in which the story can go either way. The result is surprisingly satisfying; the kind of solid film-making that survives on a good old-fashioned script and strong performances. It’s certainly worth a look, especially for Washington’s performance.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) The British film industry has, by now, perfected the science of transforming transgressive subjects into nice little harmless comedies. From male stripping to The Fully Monty, from naked geriatric photography to Calendar Girls, from cross-dressing to Kinky Boots… Well, why not? After those precedents, seeing Hysteria make a gentle period comedy out of the invention of the first vibrator is almost expected. Hugh Dancy stars as a young doctor whose hand-cramps lead to the creation of an assistive mechanical device, but the real subject of the film is a discussion of the ways women were treated in Victorian England, with medical jargon being used to paper over a real disparity in status. Hysteria isn’t very subtle about this thematic focus (it’s definitely a modern film congratulating itself for not being Victorian England), but the overall light tone keeps things from getting too ponderous. The film can depend on the innate charm of Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal (in a provocative companion piece to Secretary), with occasional assistance by Rupert Everett in a handful of flashy scenes. Enjoy the lighthearted atmosphere, but don’t try to fact-check the film against the real history of the electrical vibrator.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) When I say that What to Expect When You’re Expecting (the book) was one of my constant references in late 2011, I’m not just recommending the book, but also announcing that as a new parent I’m far more sympathetic to the film than other reviewers (or myself at an earlier age) could be. Ensemble comedies with multiple plot-lines are a tricky bet: not all plotlines are equally interesting, not all characters get enough screen time to be fully defined, and not all subplots intersect in meaningful ways. What to Expect does a heroic job at fashioning a comic narrative out of a reference work, and generally manages to avoid the pitfalls of ensemble comedies: All five pregnancy subplots are developed with sufficient detail, the characters are endearing in their own ways, and the interplay between them is often amusing. It’s not all meaningless fluff throughout: the subplot involving Anna Kendrick remains a bit of a downer for much of the film, whereas the film’s biggest emotional punch unexpectedly comes from an adoption sequence (perhaps because, unlike the delivery scenes, it doesn’t cover very familiar ground) featuring a Jennifer Lopez fresh off the similarly-themed The Backup Plan. Otherwise, there’s plenty of good character work here, from Elizabeth Banks’ frustration-filled (yet most realistic) journey to Dennis Quaid’s happiest role to date. But the standout performance title goes to Chris Rock, who elevates the film every time the hilarious “Dude’s Group” is featured onscreen. Is What to Expect a formula-scripted film? Of course. Are the comic beats broad and obvious? Most of the time. Could it have been better? Probably. But will it appeal to anyone in its target demographic? Well, that’s the whole point of the film.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Writer/director David Ayer has basically worked his entire career so far in the “LAPD thriller” genre, but the surprise with End of Watch is how the film seems determined to re-invent the police drama, in presentation if not necessarily in content. Seen from the street-level perspective of two LAPD officers, End of Watch deliberately creates its cinema-vérité atmosphere through the use of enough handheld camera footage as so not to distract when the entire film turns out shot more conventionally. This appeal to realism is reinforced by actions that go against the grain of how movie policemen usually behave, along with dialogue that sounds improvised and a lack of detail regarding the big picture of the film’s plot. The episodic plotting gets ludicrously flashy at times (our heroes get involved with enough drug stashes, imperilled kids, human trafficking rings, car chases and shootouts to qualify for the evening news several times over) but the direction of the film keeps everything grounded. It helps that in-between the action sequences, End of Watch spends time a lot of time with its characters and so ends up focusing on their day-to-day reality. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t initially convincing as a tough police officer, but he gets more credible as the film advances. Still, it’s Micahel Peña who steals the show in a typically compelling performance. By End of Watch’s conclusion, it becomes clear that this is (unlike much of Ayer’s work-to-date) a film that celebrates the work of ordinary policemen: there are no corrupt cops here, no half-gangbangers, no superheroes: just two guys with badges, trying to do their jobs and make the world safer for their kids.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) Maligned upon release as one of the biggest flops in recent memory, John Carter may not be a great film, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its initial reputation may suggest. This big-budget adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars may have made heroic efforts to pump some dramatic interest in its now-familiar source material, but it remains a product of another era in many ways: John Carter isn’t naive science-fiction as much as it’s studied science-fantasy, operating with the handicap of adapting a work that helped codify the Science Fiction subgenre. If John Carter feels intensely familiar or even nostalgic it’s not entirely because the filmmakers have chosen to stay true to familiar genre formula: it’s because the material itself shaped the genre. Still, a lot of money (250$M) has been spent by director Andrew Stanton in a quest to put Burroughs’ hero on-screen and much of it is visible to the naked eye: The film is crammed with special effects, fully-animated characters and lavish set-pieces. It’s a spectacle of the highest order, and that aspect alone may justify a viewing even through the other aspects of the film may be lacking. The film has been in development for a very long time, so seeing it on-screen is a bit of a marvel. There’s a sense of missed opportunities, though: for all of the impressive work done in order to transform Burroughs’s rough adventure novel into a coherent three-act script, there’s a sense that the film is indulging into nostalgia rather than trying to deliver something new. It’s old-school SF, so old-school that it may not have deserved the revival. Taylor Kitsch is bland in the title role, but at least Lynn Collins seems to step out of the covers of pulp SF magazines as Martian princess Dejah Thoris. The special effects are plentiful for those who like that sort of things, and the wide-screen visuals often mask dull moments in the plotting. Direction-wise, Stanton has an odd sense of rhythm and editing that work against the picture: Carter’s exaggerated feats look silly no matter how carefully explained. The script does have a few good moments (surprisingly enough, even the framing device works well) but it’s cookie-cutter stuff, made even worse by the deliberate naiveté of the Science Fiction being practiced here. So: See it for the visuals. Don’t expect much from the rest.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Part of the appeal of the original Taken was seeing a rather serious dramatic actor like Liam Neeson take on an action-hero role, within an exploitation film that was competently scripted and directed. Taken 2 has no such element of surprise, and little to offer in terms of execution. Frankly, its premise half-reads as a parody: Members of his family get kidnapped… again! Of course, there’s a little more than that to it: the revenge-driven premise cleverly springs from the consequences of the first film, and you can point at this sequel to show how the expectations set by the first instalment are cleverly tweaked (ie; the adults get kidnapped but the daughter doesn’t, and the protagonist has to work with his daughter to get the means to escape) alongside the way Istanbul is used as a setting in order to show how Taken 2 is reasonably good at what it set out to do. Unfortunately, there isn’t much extra substance or interest to the film. Luc Besson’s “Digital Factory” is not known for consistent products, and Taken 2 falls in the middle of their offerings. Director Olivier Megaton isn’t as meanly efficient as Taken’s Pierre Morel (his action sequences don’t flow quite as well), and the script seems noticeably lighter: Mute off the gunfights and chase sequences, and not much remains in this fairly linear plot. Liam Neeson, of course, isn’t the same actor as he used to be: Although equally effective at inhabiting his character, he is now (after Taken, The A-Team, Unknown and The Grey) almost his own Liamsploitation action category. Taken 2 isn’t much of a surprise, nor does it work as hard as the original at pleasing audiences… considering that the effectiveness of original was almost an accident, trying to replicate it doesn’t really work. It’s a film that works best as filler for people who want a quasi-copy of the original. Everyone else may want to look at something else.