(On Cable TV, April 2013) There have been a lot of films about the end of the world lately (a wave that shows no sign of abating), but there’s always a place for something different, and it’s in this light that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is best appreciated. Once the first few minutes establish that this is indeed the impending end of the world, the rest of the film follows an everyman protagonist as he witnesses the end of civilization, the various responses to the impending apocalypse, and even gets to find solace of sorts. It’s too amiable to classify as a drama, but as a comedy, don’t expect big laughs as much as a series of poignant vignettes and a gentle romance. Steve Carrell is almost perfectly cast as the melancholic protagonist, while Keira Knightley gets an easy role as the girl who brightens up the last days of his life. Based as it is on a road-trip series of vignettes, the film can’t escape some severe tonal consistency problems, but it does end in a satisfying (albeit predictable) fashion. Cranking up many romantic clichés against the big ticking clock of the impending apocalypse, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World works best as a break from the usual bombastic disaster clichés, and as a slower deliberate exploration of what the end means to everyone.
(Video on-Demand, April 2013) There’s a fine line between parody, homage and unimaginative filmmaking, and it’s unfortunate that Gangster Squad seems to straddle all three at various times. I’m certainly not objecting to the idea of a muscular crime thriller set in post-war Los Angeles: cops-versus-mob movies are the bread-and-butter of the crime-thriller genre, and a director as gifted as Ruben Fleischer should have done wonders with the concept, especially given a an ensemble cast of talented actors. At times, Gangster Squad is exactly what it should be: a broad straight-up action movie where brash cops slap down the burgeoning L.A. mob scene. Car chases, fist-fights, explosions and gunfights: No problem. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad ends up feeling a bit too naive even for its intended goal: the tone isn’t controlled, the plot strands are both tired and used without refinements, the dialogues are weak and even the capable actors can’t do much with what they’re given. The worst example of this is probably the romantic sub-plot between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling: both are good actors with great chemistry, but they’re not given anything interesting to do together. Historically inaccurate to a degree that can be divined even by the most unobservant of viewers, Gangster Squad should be an old-fashioned thriller à la L.A. Confidential, but ends up a barely-competent photocopy of better works. The historical re-creation, decent actors and overall potential can’t make up for the wasted opportunities.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Well, that was uncomfortable. Some subject matters are almost entirely laugh-free, and a woman raising her dead lover’s clone as her son, with all psycho-sexual complication that entails, ranks way up there on the list of films that are as entertainment-free as possible. It certainly doesn’t help that the film almost entirely takes place on a cold, windy, damp beach location that practically seeps through the screen to chill audiences. Eva Green is superb in the role of a woman so consumed by grief that she ends up blurring the lines between mother and lover –the film takes a long time to get to a conclusion, but it’s as uncomfortable as it’s inevitable. Fortunately, Womb has a bit more than discomfort to offer audiences: as a low-key emotional exploration of science-fictional concepts, it’s not dissimilar to Never Let Me Go (down to the damp beach locations), and the question it raises almost excuse the interminable time it takes to get there. It’s not as much of a slam to say that I never intend to watch this film again: it fulfills its objectives, and none of those objectives are about repeated viewings or even simple entertainment. While a better, more accessible film could have been made from the same elements, Womb isn’t without merits, even if it ends up being as uncomfortable to watch as Splice was.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Over the past year, I have willingly forgone an almost-exclusive diet of theater films in favour of extensive sampling from premium cable channels, with the pernicious result that I am seeing a far wider variety in the quality of the films I watch. From made-for-TV stinkers to big-budget critical darlings, I now watch everything and my expectations are now lower (ie: more realistic) than they used to be. These personal considerations are prologue to one stone-cold fact: When such a great film as Django Unchained makes its way inside my brain after so many undistinguished movies, the sheer cinephile pleasure of it seems increased. I’ve long admired nearly everything directed by Quentin Tarantino: his love of moviemaking is so infectious that every single film he makes is a treat for jaded movie fans, his script are unlike anyone else’s, his direction makes the familiar feel fresh and the depth of his films is such that you can spend a long time discussing them. As a gleefully revisionist historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained feels like a natural follow-up to Inglourious Basterds: It exploits the strengths of exploitation cinema to deliver a fully satisfying entertainment experience, putting power back in the hands of the oppressed and allowing for a graphic depiction of wrongs being righted. It makes full use of a talented cast in order to provide unique moments of cinema. Jamie Foxx is sheer charisma as Django, while Christoph Waltz completely owns his role. Leonardo diCarpio turns in a rare but effective villainous presence, while Kerry Washington singlehandedly raises the emotional stakes of the film. It takes its time in order to build single-scene suspense of a sort seldom seen in more average films. But the exploitation/entertainment label that is so easily affixed to Django Unchained can mask something far more interesting: in fully showing the viciousness of slavery required for vengeance to be so effective, Django Unchained goes farther than most similarly-themed movies in graphically condemning this ugly chapter of American history. It takes an exploitation film like this one to go where more serious films won’t dare, and this one is gleefully unrepentant in allowing the downtrodden to punish their exploiters. When you combine such crowd-pleasing intentions with top-notch filmmaking skill, the result is irresistible and quickly climbs up year’s-best listings. Django Unchained is, warts and slavery and self-indulgence included, a sumptuous cinematic feast and a splendid piece of entertainment. Don’t dare miss it.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I’m all for minimalism in horror films: Oren Peli (who produced Chernobyl Diaries) did wonders on a shoestring budget with Paranormal Activities, and part of that film’s effectiveness depended on restraint and a willingness to go back to basics. Sadly, Chernobyl Diaries manages to mishandle nearly every asset that could have run in its favour, starting with the idea of stranding young Americans in the hostile post-apocalyptic setting of Pripyat, the Russian city famously abandoned after the neighboring Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. The scenery is interesting while the plot set-up remains familiar. It’s what follows after the expected “stranded in the middle of nowhere!” plot beat that gets more and more tedious. Things go bump in the dark, mysterious sights and sounds reinforce the idea that something awful is out there… and so what? The scares are elementary in a way that feels dull, and as the annoying characters make dumber and dumber decisions, it quickly becomes apparent that few will mourn their inevitable demise. The menace surrounding them is never clearly defined (whatever throwaway explanations are thrown around at the end are severely underwhelming) and even allowing for the short film’s slow-burn setup, Chernobyl Diaries feels too flat to be interesting. Dull dialogue, flat cinematography, stock characters and shaky cameras don’t add much. (The bear scene is good, through.) It’s too bad that they couldn’t have done more with the initial idea. Some of the last scenes, as frustrating as they are in their obstinate refusal to reward viewers, suggest a much better film.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I was left unimpressed by The Expendables’ mixture of self-satisfied machismo, gory violence and incoherent direction, so to say that this sequel is better than the first one only requires slight improvements. By far the best creative decision taken this time around is to give directing duties away from Sylvester Stallone and to veteran filmmaker Simon West –an inconsistent director, but one who at least knows what he’s doing. The macho bravado and CGI gore is still there, but at least the film doesn’t struggle to make itself understood once the relatively coherent action sequences are put together. The tone is much improved: Rather than trying to be a humorless pastiche of 80s action films, The Expendables 2 regularly acknowledges its own absurdity, whether in the form of stunned one-liners, or avowed deus-ex-cameo plot developments that allow icons such as Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis to come in a save the day even at the expense of basic suspension of disbelief. As with the first film, it’s the casting that provides much of the entertainment: Sylvester Stallone is still obnoxious in a self-indulgent lead role, but Jason Statham is reliably good, Jean-Claude van Damme relishes his role as an eponymous Vilain, Dolph Lundgren gets a bit more of that “mad chemist” character, while relative newcomer Nan Yu makes a bit of impression as a welcome female presence in the middle of so much testosterone. As far as action is concerned, the beginning of The Expendables 2 is generally getter than its second half for reasons linked to the film’s intention: R-rated Eighties action film were heavy on violence (ie; personalized deaths, usually at gunpoint) while subsequent Nineties PG-13 action films relied more on, well, bloodless action: chases and explosions. This sequel has more action at the beginning, and far more violence at the end, especially when is starts shooting up an airport terminal where no innocent travellers are to be found. Dialogue and plot don’t deserve much of a mention, except to note their role in setting up the action sequences or the terrible self-referential humor. While the film is definitively an improvement over the original, the final result isn’t much more than a routine shoot-‘em up: there is little in The Expendables 2 to spark the imagination or even to discuss once the credits roll. It goes without saying that the entire thing is still an exercise is self-absorbed nostalgia. There is no need for a sequel, even though one is nearly certain given the nature of the franchise.
Hyperion, 1995, 352 pages, ISBN 0-786-86182-7
At some point over the past few years, I got my hands on a copy of Leonard Nimoy’s second autobiography, titled I am Spock. Dimly aware that the title was a reference to a first autobiography titled I am not Spock, I refrained from cracking open the book, hoping that someday I’d be able to read both books back-to-back and get the best out of the entire experience. Against all odds, I got my wish when my work manager left a battered paperback copy of I am not Spock lying on her desk. So how do the two compare?
It’s worth keeping in mind that I am not Spock was published in 1975, at a time when cult interest in the then-defunct first Star Trek series was growing rapidly. Nimoy earned much attention for his portrayal of the alien Mr. Spock, an unlikely sex-symbol who threatened the actor with typecasting and caused all sorts of amusing confusion when fans called by his character’s name or reflected upon him the qualities of the character. I am not Spock, upon close reading, reveals no real animosity between Nimoy and Spock –merely a mildly-frustrated desire to distinguish between the character and the actor. (Hence the book’s dialogues between actor Nimoy and character Spock.)
While much of I am not Spock is about Nimoy’s formative experiences and the roles he played before and immediately after Star Trek, you can imagine that much of the book is about the making of Trek’s original three-season run, and the conflicts that eventually developed between Nimoy and the producers. It’s an early revealing look into the difficulties of the show (one that would later be completed by other Trek autobiographies) that retains an evergreen fascination for fans. Interestingly enough, it’s the now-dated parts of the book that remain most fascinating for contemporary readers, from slightly-psychedelic passages in which Nimoy argues with his alter-ego, or the typically-seventies expressions, hobbies and attitudes that Nimoy describes.
I Am Spock’s title became mandatory considering that fans were not at all pleased with the title of the first book. Hoping to make amends, Nimoy presented his twenty-years-later follow-up autobiography as even more of an unabashed love letter to his character. You’d think that the narrative would simply pick up where the previous one ends, but I Am Spock incorporates and updates much of the previous book’s content. The good news is that it makes the previous book redundant if you can’t find it. The bad news is that if you’ve just read the previous book, much of the second one will feel like a re-thread, down to the same anecdotes and punch-lines. There’s also a peculiar weirdness in reading I am Spock as a response to a book that it essentially contains: Your mind can expand in strange directions trying to make sense of this.
But there is new content as well. On the Star Trek front, I am Spock discusses the unexpected revival of Trek over the years, which included a series of successful movies featuring the cast of the original series. On non-Trek matters, Nimoy discusses other acting jobs, and a successful foray in movie directing that saw him direct two Trek movies and the commercially-successful comedy Three Men and a Baby. This, with the added benefit of twenty more years’ hindsight, make the follow-up book quite a bit more interesting than the 1975 installment: it presents Nimoy as a seasoned entertainer, able to fluently discuss challenges behind and in front of the camera.
One almost expects a third installment in 2015 called I Will Always be Spock; Nimoy, after all, has continued his association with the character by playing him as recently as in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, and has added more roles and artistic activities to a lengthy career.
Unusually enough, I would advise time-pressed readers to skip the first book and focus on the second: while both are breezy, fun and revealing autobiographies, the second one has more to offer and repeats much of the first book’s material. Reading them back-to-back is not a fascinating experience in how twenty years can change a person: it’s more of a exercise in repetitiveness. Leonard Nimoy is Spock, and let’s leave it at that. (Sorry, Zachary Quinto.)
(On Cable TV, April 2013) Following a familiar formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but incompetently following a familiar formula seems even more inexcusable than in trying something new. So it is that cheap direct-to-video Dragon Eyes manages to botch a dirt-simple “stranger comes to clean up town” plot template. It’s not even particularly subtle in its presentation, as a sturdy asian protagonist walks in the middle of a black/latino gang-infested Louisiana neighborhood and starts picking fights with the local criminal element. We eventually learn the back-story, but what initially seems like directorial stylishness eventually reveals itself to be pure incoherence. Simply put, Dragon Eyes goes through the motions so automatically that crucial plot developments are forgotten and simply aren’t shown on-screen: the result is a story that is carried forward on pure assumed plotting knowledge: The viewers have to fill out missing scenes in their heads, since what is shown on-screen seeks to skip ahead (or back) without delivering the basic narrative building blocks. From time to time, various visual flourishes keep our interest: Some action scenes (including a few lengthy fighting shots) are directed with some ambition, the opening credits are fine, some stylish freeze-frames introduce the characters (alas, without much final impact) and a few of the actors are clearly too good for the material given to them: Cung Le manages to remain intriguing as the dull protagonist, but Jean-Claude Van Damme steals the film as a grizzled mentor, while Peter Weller has a bit of fun as a criminal kingpin, and Crystal Mantecón is beautiful enough to make an impression despite a woefully underwritten love-interest role. Dragon Eyes quickly becomes an irritant, a film that doesn’t quite know how to tell a basic story despite limiting itself to the barest bones of a narrative. It begins in confusion, advances in incoherence and finishes without a satisfying wrap-up. It ultimately doesn’t distinguish itself from countless other basic low-budget action films except for the fact that it doesn’t even deliver minimal viewing satisfaction.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I’ll be honest: there is little in the first half-hour of the film that I found pleasing or interesting. Taking inspiration from the same goth-grotesque vein often tapped by early-era Tim Burton, ParaNorman first shows up with a deliberately ugly aesthetics sense, standard loner-protagonist tropes and cookie-cutter screenwriting. It’s not badly made, but it’s not immediately compelling. Fortunately, things do improve once the required pieces are put in place and before knowing it, the aesthetics of the film aren’t a problem, the character relationships take a life of their own and the film moves toward acquired emotional strengths. Heck; by the end of the film, I found myself unexpectedly moved by the resolution of the antagonist’s plotline, and cheering along the plucky band of heroes as they faced against an intolerant mob. Initial doubts aside, ParaNorman is an impressive piece of work, fully exploiting digital innovation in order to deliver top-quality stop-motion animation. The heart of the script is at the right place despite the sometimes-grotesque imagery, and the result is the kind of young-teen kids’ film that any parent should be glad to put on the family playlist.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as intimate thrillers go, it’s hard to be purer in intent than Retreat: It features a mere handful of characters, and setting whose isolation becomes a crucial portion of the plot. It begins when a married couple seek an escape from their troubles by spending a week on a deserted island, alone on an empty estate. They are surprised by a solider claiming that a plague has swept through the globe in their absence, and that they must protect themselves against a possible intrusion. Things get more complicated afterward, but no less tense as the married couple seems woefully unprepared to deal with their dangerous new companion. Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy headline the small cast: much of the film’s tension relies on the interactions between three characters. The spatial restraint is such that one could easily imagine this story done as a theater piece. The cold and damp setting works to the film’s claustrophobic advantage, and the script is occasionally ingenious in how it gradually ratchets up the tension without necessarily taking the obvious path. (There’s a notable absence of sexual tension once that question is quickly defused, for instance) The conclusion may be a bit too nihilistic, but it does feature a nice reversal of expectations. While Retreat may not be a likable film in the most conventional sense of the word, it is an interesting exercise in suspense, perhaps most effective as an antidote to a steady diet of higher-budgeted overblown thrillers.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) Obvious aimed at older audiences, this gently-paced comedy is about an older couple seeking to re-connect after decades of increasing neglect and disaffection. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones (as the estranged couple) alongside Steve Carrell (as their therapist) lend star-power to a premise that could have gone just as naturally in a straight-to-TV film. As a comedy, it’s low-laughs, high-heart stuff, as the couple repeatedly stumbles while trying to reconnect. The look at mature relationships is unusual enough to be interesting (consider the film as a companion piece to This is 40) but this is in no way a wacky-hijinks comedy, and in fact it may be funny only because it ends on a happy note –much of the film could go either way. There are few surprises in the script, which means that much of the film’s appeal rests squarely on Streep and Jones’ shoulders. Fortunately, they’re veteran actors for a reason, and their sweetly vulnerable portrayal of an old couple is almost worth the time it takes to watch the film if you’re a fan of either actor. Both end up playing far lesser-powered versions of their usual screen personas, and the result has a hum-drum domesticity that is almost surprising. Jones’ character is so broadly defined as to court caricature at times, but he still makes it work; meanwhile, Streep conclusively demonstrates the potential sex-appeal of a sixty-something woman. Many younger viewers won’t have the patience, interest span or life-experiences required to sit comfortably through the film, and that’s fine: Hope Springs may work best as a film targeted to older audiences. It may not be an overly memorable film, but it’s not bad, and it has a few welcome reminders that romance can be rekindled.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) One of the most damaging assumptions in film reviewing is the idea that kids’ movies are allowed to be dumber than films aimed at adults. Never mind the long list of great kids’ movies that can be used as counter-arguments: the “dumb is OK for kids” mentality encourages an acceptance of bad screenwriting that should not be allowed to go unchecked. So it is that much of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island stands amongst the shoddiest, most poorly-justified pieces of screenwriting I have seen recently. It doesn’t matter if the original film didn’t cry out for a sequel: this one stands alone and should have been put down until a better script came along. Parts of it are as insulting to common sense as to defy explanation. Could I ever manage to convey the inanity of the “three maps” superposition? The bees segment? The submarine thing? The list of gross offenses against elementary logic grows long, but not as long as the unconvincing character dynamics and dumb dialogue. But here’s the thing: Even if Journey 2 makes little sense from a narrative perspective, it’s pretty good in bits and pieces, as the special effects, set-pieces, charismatic actors and sense of adventure occasionally manage to paper over the dumb parts of the script. Dwayne Johnson is preposterously charismatic as a lead: the “pecs pop” sequence would have been intolerable with any other actor, but he manages to anchor the film into a grander-than-life reality. Josh Hutcherson (returning from the previous film) is a dud as a protagonist, but Luis Guzmán is amusing enough as the comic relief, Vanessa Hudgens is cute as the love interest and Michael Caine doesn’t embarrass himself too much despite the sub-par material given to him. Fortunately, the special effects are there to take the slack and provide some interest in-between the preposterous writing. Still, a few pretty sequences aren’t much to compensate for a dangerously stupid script. The usual “kids’ movies are dumb” argument usually ends with a variation on “it’s fine for kids, but adults may want to do something else”. Well, never mind that: adults should be able to watch films with their kids. If even you find yourself bored or insulted by Journey 2, stop watching it immediately, and watch something better instead.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Recasting J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slight The Hobbit into a massive action/adventure fantasy epic trilogy mold means that it’s best to forget about any meaningful book-to-screen comparisons. It’s best to judge it as a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and assume that it’s going to be cast in the same mold. In this light, first film An Unexpected Journey hits most of the expected notes by leisurely introducing the characters, sending them off on a quest and indulging into plenty of action-packed adventures. None of it is presented economically, meaning that fans get a lot for their money and non-fans can find the whole thing overdrawn. Still, much of what made The Lord of the Rings so successful is still visible here: the attention to detail, lavish set-pieces, depth of immersion in Middle-Earth… and the care with which Peter Jackson handles his directing duties. It’s presented with a quasi-reverential respect for Tolkien’s mythology, and a great deal of excess in the way its action sequences are conceived and presented. It fits rather well with the previous trilogy (something that the drawn-out prologues make sure to accomplish), ensuring that whoever expected a follow-up to Lord of the Rings is fully satisfied. It’s not quite as good, but the most accurate comparison is to the countless imitators that have tried to recapture the success of Jackson’s trilogy: An Unexpected Journey is a markedly better work than most of the fantasy adventures that have popped up on-screen in the near-decade since Return of the King, and that’s a significant achievement in itself. This newest trilogy won’t conclude for another two years, but no matter: it’s a safe bet to say that more of the same is in store.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as period crime-dramas go, Lawless offers a quasi-charming throwback to Prohibition-era booze bootleggers. Adapted from a docu-fictive novel written by descendants of the bootleggers (Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World) Lawless obviously takes the side of the hero bootleggers as they face off against the real criminals and the corrupt self-righteous representatives of the law. This is a romanced view of criminal activity, and while Lawless attempts something more than the usual crime drama, it doesn’t have the heft or scope required to produce a memorable result. Still, what’s on-screen isn’t too bad, especially when Lawless takes a few moments to indulge in its rural-Virginia setting. It helps that the cast is so impressive: between brother-outlaws played by Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf, an extended cameo by Gary Oldman, an evil turn from Guy Pearce and a love interest played by Jessica Chastain, Lawless has enough star-power to keep anyone interested. (Hardy’s portrayal of an almost-comically-gruff character is a standout, as is Pearce’s repellent antagonist.) Still, the film’s biggest asset is in its somewhat-sympathetic portrait of moonshine production. Our outlaw heroes aren’t sadistic or repellant: they use the minimal possible amount of violence as a tool to keep things tidy in the pursuit of an extra buck. Occasional moments of significant violence are almost expected for the genre, while lengthier lulls in the pacing sap away some of the film’s energy on the way to attempt a more ambitious kind of film. Lawless ends up falling between two chairs, never completely happy to stick to an entertaining crime drama, while never having quite what it takes to become a criminal epic for the ages. Lawless will have to settle for a good-enough film, probably more disposable than the filmmakers intended (what film isn’t?) but still reasonably entertaining in its own right.
(Video on Demand, April 2013) One thing is for sure: As a take on the British comic-book character Judge Dredd, this is quite a bit better than the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film. Dredd dispenses with its protagonist’s origin story, overt character development and even heroically refuses to show his entire face: the result is quite a bit closer to the intention of the original comic book material. It helps that producer Alex Garland has been able to put together a day-in-the-life action film that stands alone absent any connections to the wider Dredd mythology: Pete Travis’ direction shows occasional flourishes, and the action cleverly focuses on a single megaskyscraper taken over by criminals. It falls to Judge Dredd (Thanklessly played by Karl Urban, who never removes his eye-obscuring helmet) and trainee Cassandra Anderson (adorably chimpmunk-faced Olivia Thirlby) to clean up the mess, even as they go against a powerful drug lord (Lena Headley, faaaar from her Game of Thrones role) and entire floors of hardened criminals. Other than the dystopian setting, the film’s biggest SF device is a “Slo-Mo” drug that slows down perception to 1% of current time –visually presented with sparkly ultra-so-motion. The action set-pieces are numerous and decently handled, even often beautiful despite the substantial gore that they portray. If nothing else, Dredd is a fine action film, not flawless (the early scenes outside the apartment building betray a small budget) but stylish enough at a time when there are so many cookie-cutter films of the sort. Fans of the over-the-top comic book series may be disappointed to see that the film doesn’t have the resources to indulge in the universe’s wilder facets, nor the audience familiarity to be as cuttingly sarcastic about its own premise. But Dredd ought to please a wider audience than just the comic book fans, and that’s an honorable result given what happens to most comic-book-inspired films.