(Video On-demand, March 2013) Director Joe Wright has always shown tendencies toward stylistic show-boating, and the first half-hour of Anna Karenina is crammed with directorial flourishes as the film moves in-between interior sets and a larger theatrical stage. As a way to freshly present an oft-told story (Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted to the big screen at least 12 times until now), it’s not a bad choice –except that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the device, and it seems to be half-abandoned as the film progresses. While viewers who like a bit of cinematic flourish may be pleased by the way Wright plays along with conventions, it does obscure the story and turns the film into something it’s not meant to be. It also obscures the good work done by the actors, including Keira Knightley in the titular role and Jude Law as her despairing husband. (Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mustache steals the show for none-so-positive reasons.) The costumes are sumptuous and the visuals occasionally evoke a nicely idealized view of 19th century Russian aristocracy, but the self-conscious artificiality of the film’s presentation work at undercutting the impact of those. As a take on familiar material, this 2012 version of Anna Karenina isn’t ugly to look at… but it’s quite a bit abstract when it starts messing with the way movies are presented, and that may not necessarily work at a romantic drama’s advantage.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) In the stream of critical adulation for Lincoln, mark me down as undecided: Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but this presidential biography feels flat, dark and dull compared to the material’s potential. I am not objecting to the film’s initial refusal to bow to the mythology of the character: some of Lincoln’s best moments come in presenting the president as a canny politician rather than a heroic folk-figure. Unfortunately, Lincoln gets more self-important as it advances, yet still feels unnecessarily dull throughout. The dark cinematography doesn’t help things, and while the film is not bad at building a political thriller about the passing of a bill rather than a fully satisfying portrait of a historical figure, it still feels overblown for what it tries to do. At least Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as Lincoln, presenting a solid portrayal that manages to combine both Lincoln’s historical importance with a sense of the man behind the myth. (The supporting cast is also very strong, with special mention to Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens) Still, Lincoln fails to fully satisfying: Perhaps too long, perhaps too leisurely, perhaps too ordinary for a film signed by Steven Spielberg.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) Here is the key to this film’s seemingly-pointless existence: A long time ago, before it took ownership of its characters’ movies rights (a process that eventually led to The Avengers), Marvel sold the rights to the Spider-Man character to Fox studios, with a clause saying that movies about the character had to be produced every few years, otherwise the rights would revert to Marvel. Combine that with the fact that the original cast members of the Spider-Man trilogy have all gone out of contract and into a much higher income profile and you get a perfect excuse for a reboot, whether you like the idea or not. Ten years is a long time when it comes to the teenage audiences at which the Spider-Man films are aimed. So it is that The Amazing Spider-Man is nearly a plot-beat-per-plot-beat rethread of 2002’s Spider-Man. You’d think that modern audiences, familiarized with superheroes through fifteen years’ worth of such films, could be spared another origins story… but no. Still, a reboot may be a disappointment, but it’s not necessarily a substantial knock against the finished film: it’s all about the execution, and a deft take on familiar ideas can outshine plodding originality most of the time. Sadly, the biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man is that it can’t be trusted to present a satisfying version of the Spider-Man mythology. It doesn’t do much with the expected elements of the Spider-Man origins story, and by strongly suggesting that non-nerdy Peter Parker is meant to become Spider-Man, it seriously undermines one of the charms of the everyman character. This, added to evidence of late tampering with the script (as in: the trailers show more than what’s in the finished film) and the obvious non-resolution of enough plot-lines to point the way to a film trilogy, make The Amazing Spider-Man such a disappointing experience. Oh, it’s not as if the film is worthless: The two lead actors are better than the previous trilogy’s lead actors even when they’re not given equally-good material (poor Emma Stone doesn’t have much to do than show off her knees), director Marc Webb has a good eye and the wall-to-wall special effects show how much the industry has improved in ten years. This Spider-Man has better quips (one of the characteristics that establish him as a distinct alter-ego from Peter Parker), Rhys Ifans is intriguing as the mad-scientist villain and the film is slickly-made. Still, from a storytelling standpoint, it seems as if all the worst choices were made in the service of a mechanically-conceived piece of pop-culture merchandizing. It’s entertaining enough, but it could have been so much better…
(On Cable TV, March 2013) Nobody was asking for a third Men in Black installment after the disaster that was 2002’s second film, but here we are: Will Smith wants another box-office hit, and this is the best franchise he’s got. To be fair, the Men in Black concept is still strong: it’s a great framework through which to combine humor, gadgets, action, special effects and the occasional bit of awe at the strangeness of the universe. When it clicks, Men in Black 3 is able to touch upon all of those strengths. Alas, it doesn’t always do so, and whatever strong points it has often seem accidental thanks to the ego of a few of the people involved. Let’s start with elements of the premise, which sees both lead characters reprise the same character dynamics despite a ten-year gap: Will Smith is still playing his character (heck, his entire screen persona) as a mid-twenties smart-ass, which wears increasingly thin for someone in his mid-forties. Does it make sense that his character (still single) should still have the same relationship with his job partner a decade later? Who knows: at least it sets up a laborious series of scenes all reminding us that Tommy Lee Jones’ character is emotionless. After a surprisingly gory opening sequence and some obnoxious flaying around, Men in Black 3 finally hits its stride when it sends its protagonist back in time: Milking the era for a few Mad-Men-in-Black jokes, it also has fun reconceptualising the MIB agency in an earlier time. Josh Brolin makes for a droll younger Tommy Lee Jones, while some of the considerations surrounding the improbability of even the most mundane events are good for a bit of sci-fi pop-philosophy. The time-traveling elements are used in a manner that is both ingenious and nonsensical (don’t be surprised if your suspension of disbelief snaps at a crucial junction, because it really doesn’t make sense even with a neuralizer.) It doesn’t help that Barry Sonnenfeld is at his usual inconsistent best: While he can handle comic set-pieces and great visuals with a deft touch, he’s all-too-often likely to include head-scratching diversions and meaningless details good only for making us wonder why. Tallying the pluses against the minuses, we end up with a film that’s generally better than its predecessor, with enough high points (and an absence of truly bad points) to make it worth a look. It’s not a complete success, but it’s quite a bit better than anyone was expecting given the film’s troubled production history and decade-distant awful predecessor. See it as a buffet, and take only the parts that you like.
(Video on-demand, March 2013) Aimless character-driven comedy about the humanity of relationship makes for a nice change of pace from a diet of highly-plotted action-driven special-effects extravaganza, and you couldn’t ask for more amiable actors than Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as lead protagonists. This is 40 aims to provide a warts-and-all look at the dynamics of an established marriage, and it doesn’t take a lot to see echoes of universal experience in the sometimes-horrid thoughts expressed here. Still, it’s about sticking together no matter how difficult circumstances can be, and it helps that the dialogue is both cutting and revealing. There is a lot of depth to the ensemble cast, with particularly challenging roles for Albert Brooks and John Lithgow as polar-opposite grand-dads. Everyone is playing their part in a very relaxed fashion, which may explain how and why such a seemingly plot-less film can sustain attention for so long. Where the film falters is in its coda, which wraps up too quickly without giving decent send-offs to the myriad subplots introduced throughout the picture. Still, this is a film about moments, not dramatic arcs: Writer/Director Judd Apatow’s been mining the less-romantic aspects of romance throughout this career, and This is 40 fits squarely in this niche.
The Breach, Harper, 2009, 384 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-158445-9
Ghost Country, Harper, 2010, 384 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-158444-2
Deep Sky, Harper, 2011, 384 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-195879-3
As someone who loves both Science Fiction and techno-thrillers, I’m always a bit surprised at how few authors have been able to combine the strengths of both genres into a hybrid success. Science Fiction is about awe at the possibilities of the universe and the futures available to us; techno-thrillers are usually a distillation of the same possibilities, in a contemporary setting that can make everything feel more relevant. Of course, there are differences in approach and easy pitfalls in both genres: At its worst, techno-thrillers reject the intrusion of the future in our realities, making sure that the genie goes back the box at the end of the story. Meanwhile, bad science-fiction is about gadgets more than human emotions, and narrative patterns that only make sense to long-time genre readers.
Patrick Lee’s Travis Chase trilogy is a superb exercise in combining techno-thriller plot mechanics with science-fiction concepts and it’s so successful that it made me giddy with pure reading excitement for the first time in a long while. Lee doesn’t just play in the sandbox of both genres, but combines them in ways that feel fresh and exciting, playing with the possibilities while never quite betraying both audiences with dead-end ideas.
The best readers for those books are probably jaded and familiar with tropes of both genres. Lee’s rapid pacing and go-for-broke plotting is earnest to a point that at times approach self-parody, but it fully shows its cards in the first few chapters. (It takes a special kind of reader, maybe not you, to appreciate passages such as “He wasn’t going to kill her. He’d accrued enough of that brand of guilt for one lifetime. ¶ But he was going to kill again. ” [P.33] ) Consider that within seventy-five pages of the first volume, our protagonist (an ex-cop and ex-con) hiking through the Alaskan wilderness for a relaxing holiday ends up stumbling over the fresh wreckage of a sophisticated 747, discovers the body of the First Lady alongside a number of scientists, is given the missing to find hostages and kill them before they can betray national secrets, battles terrorists and discovers a dangerous omniscient artifact that takes over his mind, nearly leading to the launch of a limited nuclear strike against China. To repeat: all of that takes place in the first seventy-five pages. It gets crazier after that.
For our protagonist Travis Chase has become sucked into the world of The Breach, a secret government organization set up to manage the output of an accidental wormhole in a scientific facility deep under the American Midwest. The Breach, you see, regularly spews out unusual, extraordinary, often dangerous alien objects. Objects with near-magical powers. Objects that could destroy a good chunk of the world if mishandled.
With a setup like that, it’s no wonder that the trilogy gets off roaring and seldom slows down. Once Chase is accepted within The Breach, he’s quickly led to “the most dangerous building in the world” (how can you resist that as a narrative hook?) where he and other members of the organization engage in a prodigiously vertiginous game of logic-building taking in account that they’re up against an omniscient antagonist. The gadgets that The Breach bring along help set up a deliciously over-the-top set-piece in which a lone team of special operatives gets to square off against an entire city of antagonists. It’s ridiculously over-the-top and yet exactly the kind of virtuoso sequence that many techno-thrillers writers don’t have the imagination to conceive, let alone pull off. Never mind the fantastic gadgets required to make it work: The entire trilogy seems to run from one science-fictional set-piece to another. The Breach keeps running at a breathless pace, leading to a spectacular conclusion that puts a big question mark over the hero’s true nature.
The first volume depends upon the concept of The Breach and an omniscient trickster AI, but the second one, Ghost Country, gets to play with an unusual time machine. Innovatively enough, Lee posits a pair of devices allowing to move back and forth between the present and a future fixed at the moment of the devices’ activation. The problem is that the future, seventy-five years forward, clearly shows an imminent apocalypse, and nothing they do in the present can change the future. How can they figure out what’s about to happen? Naturally, this movement back-and-forth between the present and the future allows for some complicated action set-pieces, not to mention the intellectual thrill of chasing answers in two different realities.
As a follow-up, the third volume Deep Sky plays along with the idea of a secret at The Breach’s inception, along with a gadget that allows going back in time and re-living that moment with full access to the world of then. There’s a crackling good sequence later in the book in which Chase gets to use knowledge that would have been impossible to get otherwise, cleverly turning the tables on his trap-laying antagonists. Deep Sky’s end sequence goes back to mysteries left unsolved in the first volume to deliver a purely science-fictional conclusion that presents an arresting moral dilemma for the protagonist –and, perhaps, the reader.
Given the trilogy’s unending inventiveness, its straightforward muscular prose, its innovative action sequences, its uncomplicated characterization, its willingness to commit to world-changing events and it’s no surprise if I raced through all three books in a mere few days, rediscovering a pure honest joy of reading that I feared lost to my own jaded self. The Travis Chase trilogy is fun to read like few other recent books, with enough weighty ideas to make a bit more than disposable entertainment. No surprise if I eventually found myself selling the praises of the book enthusiastically to a table full of readers, with even the mild spoilers above seeming to give added attractiveness to the series.
I’m also, from a critical standpoint, impressed at Lee’s ability to combine SF elements within a thriller framework without necessarily compromising the science-fictional elements themselves. By the end of the third volume, the world is irrevocably changed, and the protagonist has discovered a side of himself that’s potentially as ruthless and homicidal as any of history’s greatest dictators. The concepts used to bring along this conclusion are as science-fictional as could be, so it’s surprising to realize that the trilogy is practically never marketed as science-fiction. (The French translation, which is what brought me to the series, is published as overt SF by a specialized genre publisher.) And yet it is: while some of the plotting is more thrillerish than science-fictional (I don’t think that the first volume’s Berne set-piece would have been accepted by an SF editor, although it clearly fits within the thriller genre’s accepted standards.) it never loses sight of SF’s central ability to play along with an idea until all the good possibilities are shown on-screen. The trilogy may be built on impossible gadgets, but they’re great gadgets and they’re exploited to the full extent of their capabilities. It’s books like those that make readers realize how rigid some genre boundaries have become, and welcome the possibilities of a bit of genre-bending.
While the trilogy isn’t flawless (the second book feel disconnected from the rest of the trilogy’s overall plot, the characters sometimes have a bit too much past history, there’s little rigor to the extrapolations and the over-the-top nature of the plot can be a bit daunting if you’re not already sympathetic to this kind of thing), it’s a memorable read and a completely satisfying reading experience. As such, I’d rate it as quite a bit more valuable than many more thrillers that take no chances and don’t go beyond the most obvious ideas. I certainly welcome reading more of Lee’s work in the future, and I hope that a lot of SF fans don’t let this trilogy pass them by due to a quirk of labelling.
(Video on-demand, March 2013) The kindest thing one can say about Cospomolis is that after more than a decade spent in the wilderness of criminal realism, it’s good to see writer/director David Cronenberg go back (even partially) to weirdness and his longstanding preoccupation with the dehumanization of modern society. From the first few highly-stylised moments, it’s obvious that Cosmopolis is not going to be your average plot-driven thriller. Our protagonist may be a rich businessman driving around with the simple goal of getting a haircut, but the artificiality of the film is underlined at every second through fake visuals, elliptical dialogue obviously copied-and-pasted from Don Delillo’s short source novel and performances so devoid of normal emotion to make us question whether we’re truly seeing humans on-screen. For Robert Pattinson, this isn’t a good break from the Twilight series: His performance demands such a sense of detachment that we don’t get anything resembling emotion from him, and so no perceptible shift away from a hundred-years-old dispassionate vampire. (This is called typecasting.) It’s a film built to dwell upon the artificiality of life among the elite and it sort-of-works, but it sure feels like it takes a long time to make its points about the coldness of technology, capitalism and/or driving around in circles. It offers mildly thoughtful material, a few nude scenes, unexplainable plot points and an atmosphere that’s quite unlike any other film in recent memory. As a thriller, it’s a flat one-thing-after-another framework on which to hang ideas and intercutting monologues (the characters speak a lot but rarely respond to each other) –it’s a lot more interesting as a high-concept film with strung-together sound-bites. Still, it’s not uninteresting to watch even as an art-house experiment, and as would befit an intellectual thought-piece, a few lines may even stick in mind once the film’s performances fade away.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) There’s a small stroke of genius in the way The Help takes a big social issue such as culturally-ingrained racism and looks at it from a very domestic perspective. Isn’t it a very real human tragedy to think that poor black mothers spent more time raising privileged white children than their own kids, helping perpetuate the established order? Doesn’t it drive the point home more effectively than broad social demonstrations? Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard simply repulsive as the evil-in-a-sundress homemaker who considers “the help” as nothing more than disposable property? The Help is noteworthy in that it’s a female-driven film that managed to break the box-office: a welcome change of pace from the usual bang-bang entertainment that drives summer blockbuster crowds. A large part of this success has to be attributed to the way the film genially approaches its subject: Nearly all of the lead cast is female, and makes no apologies in the way it presents itself as a southern dramatic comedy of manners. While the film may earn a few knocks for presenting racism from a white perspective (as in: “Here’s the white girl to help those poor black people tell their story of woe”), there’s no doubt that outspoken matrons Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earn the spotlight away from southern belles Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain. While younger male viewers may not appreciate the kind of storytelling that The Help is built on, it’s easy to see that the film is effective at what it does, and that the emotional weight of the film goes beyond its older and wiser target audience. As a result, The Help manages some serious cross-over impact, charming even audiences outside its marketing category. It’s sweet without being too cloying, and it’s got a few memorable stories in its bag of folk tales. It’s surprisingly effective at discussing the emotional side of child-rearing, and wrings some real emotion from its premise. The soundtrack is occasionally terrific, and the sense of southern culture (tempered by the real recognition of its racist enablement) is spectacular. It’s well worth a look, even for viewers who may not feel as if they material calls to them.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) I have a natural quasi-home-grown sympathy for low-budget movies produced in Montréal, and some affinity with people who like to see naked female bodies but even so –as a comedy about organized voyeurs, Peepers is dull. The central concept has potential: A group of enthusiastic peepers see their organized hobby disrupted as an academic invades their favourite rooftops. But the execution simply goes nowhere, most of the characters remaining sad-sack losers until the meaningless end of the film. It’s really too bad given that as an exploration of a weird subculture at the edges of acceptable kink, there’s some good material in there, especially when the academic discovers the principles of gentlemanly peeping. Thankfully, Peepers does not tease with its subject matter: as befits a film about voyeurism, there is ample nudity on display (where else but in Montréal could this be possible?), helping to draw viewers into the thrill of sightseeing without frustrating them with unfulfilled promises. What’s more unfortunate is that the film goes nowhere with the concept. The pacing is slack, there’s little sense of place (crucial for a film about location, location, location) and the film ends without resolving half the dramatic arcs set up throughout the script. Most of the male characters (at the notable exception of Christian Paul’s hilariously unflappable Gogo) are the kind of obnoxious socially-retarded geeks that never rise to their potential. The female characters all float above their male counterparts, whether it’s Janine Theriault’s obsessive academic, Holly O’Brien’s scene-stealing acerbic voice of reason or Quinn O’Neill’s sweetly vulnerable quasi-cameo. There’s a good film to be made from Peepers’ raw material, but what we get isn’t it. At best, it’s an unremarkable effort that’s not too sure what it wants to do, or even give significant growth to its main characters.
(Video on Demand, March 2013) More than thirty years after Alfred Hitchcock’s death, the influence of the director over the thriller genre still reigns supreme, so it makes sense that a biography would seek to present the man to a contemporary audience. Taking the making of Psycho as its narrative hook, Hitchcock stars a heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins as the celebrated director, stuffing a romantic comedy and a study of Hitchcock’s entire career and quirks into a handily convenient narrative. If you’re wondering about the fidelity of the film to real events or even its literary inspiration (Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho), you may as well avoid digging too deep: Hitchcock is a heavily-fictionalized take loosely inspired by real events, but the film’s romantic theme is nowhere to be found in the book (where Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, barely gets a role and Danny Huston’s Whitfield Cook is not even mentioned), and nearly every scene contains material that only makes sense if you’re aware of Hitchchock’s legacy. It does feel a bit artificial and pat, exactly as if the screenwriters were cramming everything worth saying about the director into a comic film covering a small part of his life, and including a modern take on spousal collaborations just to provide a romantic arc to the film. But such are the conveniences of dramatized biographies, after all: the point isn’t in faithfully presenting reality as much as it is to provide an entertaining capsule summary of a complex person. In this regard, Hitchcock fares better: The script feels as if every detail is in its place, the humor is used effectively (“That’s why they call me ‘The Master of Suspense’”) and its structure is clearly meant to leave viewers elated at the success of Psycho, Hitchcock and his renewed sense of matrimonial partnership. There are a few clever sequences here and there, whether it’s Hitchcock listening to his audience’s reaction, or the way the mechanics of filmmaking are brought to life. Not everything works –the interludes in which Hitchcock converses with his fantasy of a murderer are distracting and suggest a fantastical quality to the film that it did not need. Still, as filmmaking homages go, this is straight-up Hollywood: The actors are all doing good work (Other than Hopkins-as-Hitchcock, Hellen Mirren is remarkable as Alma Reville), the cinematography is clean and everything wraps up neatly. Who cares, then, if Hitchcock takes frequent liberties with historical events?
(Video On-demand, March 2013) For a straightforward low-budget woman-in-peril thriller, House at the End of the Street isn’t too bad: There are a few narrative curveballs, the lead actress is compelling and the brisk pacing forgives a lot of other issues. Few people outside the Ottawa area will care that the film was shot in the neighborhood, but plenty will see the film because it stars a then-little-known Jennifer Lawrence. Fortunately, Lawrence has what it takes to play a plucky teenager in danger: her performance is compelling as she holds her own alongside Elizabeth Shue. The rural setting is good enough for a few chills, and after a clumsy start, the direction builds a decent sense of tension as each suspense set-piece is put together. It wouldn’t be fair to overhype House at the End of the Street as anything more than a run-of-the-mill thriller, especially during its first act, but it’s quite a bit better than its savage critical reception may have suggested. If nothing else, it shows Jennifer Lawrence running around looking scared in the classic tradition of exploitation thrillers.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) The original Rec was a small horror gem straight from Spain; follow-up Rec 2 was a flawed but intriguing expansion of the original. This Rec 3, unfortunately, is a very thin retread of a familiar idea with little material to fill even its short running time. Taking place at a lavish wedding, Rec 3 first flirts with the idea of keeping the subjective-camera experience of its predecessors before ditching the idea out of practical concerns. This leads to a lengthy introductory sequence that builds to… nothing much, as the clearly-identifiable menace of the first few minutes is instantly nullified by a swarm of jumping zombies. (You’ll understand when you’ll see it. Probably even laugh at the absurdity of it.) The Catholic mythology that was so weak in the second film is layered on even more thickly here, and yet Rec 3 doesn’t do anything particularly new with the ideas of the series so far (it may actually back-track on some things), making it an oddly generic take on the material. Still, there is about ten minutes’ worth of really good drama toward the end of the film, as the groom-and-bride have to measure their romantic relationship against a zombie infection: Once the bride (Leticia Dolera, better as the film goes on) takes a chainsaw in her own hands, the fan-service of the strong imagery becomes enjoyable and the thematic subtext of doomed love finally has something original to say. Sadly, this late burst of energy doesn’t last long: Rec 3 soon ends on the usual nihilistic tone of zombie films, and ten minutes’ worth of good material can’t really sustain even a short 80-minutes total running time.