(Video on Demand, May 2013) A corrupt politician. An ex-policeman detective with a dark past. An election. Mega development projects. Allegations of infidelity. Murder. Standard stuff when it comes to municipal political thrillers, and perhaps the most disappointing thing about Broken City is how it simply plays along with familiar tropes, delivering them with some competence but never quite going the extra mile for something more interesting than a straightforward script brought to life with capable actors. Mark Wahlberg is his usual blue-collar protagonist self as said ex-policeman with a dark past, whereas Russell Crowe is deliciously slimy as a mayor without scruples. They’re surrounded by good character actors (Barry Pepper, Jeffrey Wright and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seems to have taken on a lot of smaller roles recently) but all have to contend with a script that goes through the usual motions and sometimes not even doing that (such as with the end-of-relationship subplot). There’s a bit of an interesting character choice at the very end, but otherwise Broken City is the kind of standard fare that you see and soon forget. This isn’t to say that it’s bad –just that it’s without big surprises, and seems content to deliver on basic assumptions. The New York that the characters inhabit may have been more believable at a period piece rather than the somewhat cleaner image the city now has. Still: While Broken City may be unremarkable, it has enough narrative momentum to keep things interesting… which isn’t half-bad when compared to many similar films.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Ackroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) I don’t usually review one-hour-long documentaries, but Nina Conti’s Her Master’s Voice is good and unusual enough to warrant an exception. It begins as Conti, a talented comedian/ventriloquist, inherits puppets from her mentor and once-lover Ken Campbell (a fascinating figure who towers over the entire film); in a creative crisis, Conti mulls over donating the puppets to a specialized museum before abandoning ventriloquism and decides to attend a trade convention as a final hurrah. This, of course, is just prelude to a journey of self-discovery, vocalized doubts and a fascinating look at the ventriloquism subculture as seen at a specialized convention. Much of the material is unexpectedly powerful, and much of this impact depends on the very nature of ventriloquism as an art form: Conti appropriately dwells on the nature of speaking through another voice, the carefully-unleashed insanity of a visibly split personality and, in perhaps the film’s most poignant moment, the “bereaved objects” that are the puppets of a dead ventriloquist, as “they have lost their voice”. It’s funny, touching, perhaps a bit self-consciously melodramatic (which the film admits early on, suggesting that while all the footage has really occurred… well, much of it was pre-scripted.) yet almost entirely fascinating. Effortlessly-likable Conti and her suitcases of alter-egos make for a sympathetic ensemble, even if it’s easy to step back and acknowledge how thoroughly viewers are being manipulated. But that’s in the nature of ventriloquism, which is asking us to see a dialogue where there’s a monologue, drama where there’s a script, and a personality where there is an object –it’s entirely appropriate that a film about ventriloquism would exploit those same flaws in human cognition. While the film could have been a bit better with just a bit more content (extra footage of Conti’s performances would have been welcome, particularly the routine at the Vent Haven ConVENTion –but then again that’s what the DVD is for.) and it’s useful to check one’s disbelief at the door for some of the most orchestrated dramatic moments, Her Master’s Voice is a unique documentary, alternately hilarious and touching. Few will be surprised to learn by the end of the film that Conti did not hang up her puppet (in fact, a bit of research shows that she has returned twice to the Vent Haven ConVENTion so far) but all should be glad that she hasn’t. Trivia note: The film list Christopher Guest as an executive producer, which is appropriate enough since I first saw Conti perform as the best part in his otherwise-disappointing For Your Consideration.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Director Steven Soderbergh often has very different goals in mind than what the average moviegoer would prefer, but occasionally his artistic impulses align with his target audience and the result can be spectacular. Side Effects may exhibit much of Soderbergh’s usual tics, but it also features his technical proficiency and his ability to play with audience expectations. Interestingly enough, the film doesn’t start out promisingly: As a troubled young woman murders her husband and everyone suspects that her medications are to blame, it’s easy to feel let down by yet another basic anti-pharma diatribe; surely Soderbergh wouldn’t steep to something so basic? But then Side Effects becomes a much more unpredictable film, and we understand why the project attracted the director. It ends up being a fine psychological thriller, shot with Soderbergh’s typical drab pseudo-realism but in increasingly compelling fashion. The film switches protagonists midway through, Rooney Mara’s mopey performance receding in order to favour Jude Law’s increasingly tortured psychologist. (Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones has another small but effective supporting role –she’s been doing a lot of those lately.) A clever script, coupled with capable direction, makes for an effective thriller. Side Effects is easily one of the strongest films of 2013 so far, and it’s a remarkable testimony to Soderbergh’s skills once he sets out to deliver a crowd-pleaser.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) For an actress I didn’t even know at the beginning of the month, I’m suddenly quite impressed by Rebecca Hall’s screen presence and the range she shows from the “hero scientist” of Iron Man 3 to the “ice-cold English noble” of Parade’s End to the “trailer-park chic” of her role in Lay the Favorite. [July 2013: Although the “non-nonsense pragmatist” of The Awakening and Vicky Cristina Barcelona suggest that Lay the Favorite is a bit of an outlier.] Her performance is one of the few things that transform the somewhat ordinary script for Lay the Favorite to something worth remembering the day after. A gambling comedy set in the sports-bookie world of Las Vegas, it at least has the merit of exploring a new subculture and doing so with just enough style to be interesting. Much of the plotting is purely serviceable, with the expected story beats all carefully lined up in a row. But it’s light-hearted enough to be unobjectionable and one suspects that the light breezy tone has a lot to do with how it landed notables such as a smiling Bruce Willis in the lead, usually-reprehensible Vince Vaughn as an antagonist of sorts, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in another of her increasingly-frequent strong supporting roles. Still, the film really belongs to Hall, and she makes the most of her role, even elevating the somewhat slight film built around it. Despite weak romances, tonal inconsistencies and a dull ending, she’s the reason why Lay the Favorite remains watchable throughout and leaves a generally favorable impression even despite its familiarity and lack of substance.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) As much as I’m favourably predisposed toward writer/director Robert Rodriguez’s work (including his movies aimed at kids), it feels as if I’ve been making more and more excuses in order to enjoy his latest work. The first two Spy Kids movies stand tall as fine examples of adult-friendly kid cinema, but this fourth entry is a bit of a disappointment closer to Shorts or The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D: The script is easy, the themes are close to the surface, the dialogues are often too obvious (the endless puns on time eventually take their toll) and the originality of the previous films seem toned down. It’s still fun to watch on account of pure forward rhythm and interesting visuals, but it does leave viewers a bit unsatisfied by the end of the show. Still, I would call it anything harsher than a disappointment: It’s fun to see Jessica Alba as a spy-mom, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara and Danny Trejo all make short-but-welcome appearances to tie this fourth installment to the first four films in the series, and the family-positive message of the film shouldn’t be discounted. It does all amount to a thin new film by Robert Rodriguez, though, and looking at the rest of his recent-or-upcoming filmography (filled with Machetes and Sin Citys) it would be nice to see him attempt something more ambitious than spinoffs of his previous films.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) I’m a jaded-but-reluctant viewer when it comes to movie violence, but when I say that I Saw the Devil made me feel a bit nauseous, it’s more a statement about the film’s conscious outrageousness than any squeamishness from my part. Nominally the story of how a bereaved widower tracks down and tortures the serial killer responsible for the brutal murder of his pregnant wife, I Saw the Devil turns out to be a particularly gruesome thriller that seems to take delight in the worst possible perversions of the human mind. It takes place in a universe where serial killers abound (poor guys; they can’t take a taxi without running into each other) and can take refuge at each other’s lairs. It’s a film that half-heartedly tries to have its protagonist become as monstrous as the purely-evil antagonist, only to avoid making him face external consequences. I Saw the Devil also feels profoundly misogynistic, with several female characters being graphically butchered along the way. It is, in other words an almost-completely reprehensible film, barely saved by the impeccable quality of its production and its oft-astonishing direction. As much as I dislike everything leading to and including the taxi cab scene, for instance, it’s shot in a way that I can only call magnificent. I still can’t bring myself to recommend the film: it doesn’t have the maturity to say something about its own use of violence, and there’s the sense that a lot of big-budget resources have been invested in something that’s not much more respectable than a particularly gory Z-grade movie. One thing is for sure: my PVR felt considerably cleaner once I had deleted I Saw the Devil from its hard drive.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) One of the best things about digital filmmaking is how it lowers the barriers to moviemaking, and so allows people traditionally left voiceless by Hollywood to find a way to tell stories that are meaningful to them. The result often feels a lot like Beasts of the Southern Wild, an unpolished, grainy and loose blend of genres and influences that nonetheless feels like a welcome revelation. Don’t expect solid world-building in this fantastical tale where global warming, gigantic beasts, post-apocalyptic imagery and poor coastal communities all intersect: it may be pure fantasy, it may be magical realism, it may be science-fiction, but it’s certainly something different. The script may lurch from one thing to another, but it has something interesting to say, and honestly presents an oppressed viewpoint that’s rarely portrayed on-screen. The real revelation of the film is young Quvenzhané Wallis, a tiny force of nature able to stop huge beasts in their tracks (not to mention ordinary moviegoers) by the sole power of her stare. While the movie would have benefited from a more polished script, I fear that such an improvement would have taken away some of the film’s unusual power. It’s probably best to experience Beasts of the Southern Wild as it exists and not worry about how it could have been better.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) I’m not a big fan of Adam Sandler, but he can be effective when used in the right context (ie; not left free to indulge his man-child persona) and Just Go With It comes closer than most attempts at producing a non-irritating Sandler comedy. It helps that the film uses some fairly convoluted plot mechanics to keep him from taking center-stage: the script involves a decent amount of romantic deceptions, mismatched identities, fortuitous meetings and tangled lies. Set against the pleasant backdrop of a Hawaiian resort, well, it could be worse. Sandler is restrained in a role that asks for more maturity from him than usual, while Jennifer Aniston gets a more interesting role than usual as his assistant-turned-fake-wife. Nicole Kidman gamely tries to keep up, but this kind of comedy really isn’t her thing, and it shows. Still, the plot circumvolutions are enough to keep our attention and while the end result doesn’t aspire, let alone attain, greatness, it’s good enough to fill up a lazy afternoon. As the title says, just go with it.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) Stop the presses: It’s May, but I have already found my worst movie of 2013. And probably 2012 as well, given how bad it truly is. Oh, sure, there’s still months to go in the year… but I can’t imagine any other film approaching The Letter in sheer pointlessness, exasperation, and uninteresting actors. Here, Winona Ryder stars as a playwright slowly losing her mind while developing her newest play. Her anxieties about her lover, the actors working with her and her own talent are all reflected in the increasingly paranoid pages she gives to the actors. To be fair, there’s a kernel of interest in this premise, and the potential through which it could be developed. But hailing from the worst and most pretentious of the art-house film universe, The Letter strikingly fails to exploit any of the strengths at its disposal: Director Jay Anania doesn’t know what to do with a camera, the choppy editing makes the film near-incomprehensible at times, and none of the actors save for James Franco seem to know what they’re doing. (The film’s lone laugh belongs to Franco, and it feels like an ad-libbed line.) The plot make sense if you think about it long enough, but chances are that most viewers will never make it far enough in the film before turning it off. It’s that bad. I’ll gladly see dumb Hollywood crap over this kind of dull and pretentious trash. Bring on terrible SyFy made-for-TV catastrophe films: My expectations for what is a bad film have been recalibrated. [January 2014: I still stand behind my assessment: The Letter is the worst of the 184 movies I’ve seen in 2013.]
Doubleday, 2013, 480 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8
How appropriate that Dan Brown’s Inferno would have me thinking about catastrophe theory and how it relates to reviewing: If Brown can link trans-humanism, obsolete Malthusian hysteria, Florentine history and Dante’s Inferno in the service of a moderately dull thriller, then what’s stopping me from misappropriating a branch of mathematical theory in order to make the point that I’m suddenly exasperated by Brown’s shtick?
I suppose that a few reminders and pieces of background information are in order: Inferno is Brown’s sixth novel, the fourth to feature “symbologist” Robert Langon racing against the clock to solve intricate historical puzzles before a very modern and immediate threat unfolds. The Da Vinci Code (2003) needs no introduction as one of the most widely read novel of the past decade, leading to controversy and a movie adaption in 2006; Angels and Demons (2000) was also adapted to the big-screen in 2009, whereas The Lost Symbol (2009) made a splash as the first direct sequel to The Da Vinci Code after years of silence from Brown.
Inferno shows up four years later, and delivers almost exactly what readers had been expecting: Standard thriller mechanics set against a richly-detailed travelogue, as the protagonist uses arcane knowledge to fight against a very contemporary threat. This time around, it’s Florence (and a few other European destinations later in the novel) that provide the scenery, historical facts and enigmas to solve.
But the real mystery is this: I have defended Dan Brown against a number of detractors in the past, especially when I pointed out the savvier aspects of The Da Vinci Code against those who wanted to dismiss the book entirely. Save for Digital Fortress, I could find good things to say about every one of Brown’s other books. Why, then, do I feel so exasperated and frustrated by Inferno?
It does handle a few things quite competently. The initial set-up makes good use of the good old amnesia trope in order to place our protagonist in desperate circumstances. Why is he in a Florentine hospital? Why does he have a dangerous-looking artifact in his possessions? And why-oh-why are people shooting at him? As he retraces his steps with the help of a beautiful smart woman (the fourth in as many books –Langdon clearly isn’t very good at long-term relationships), he get to understand that he’s going through a do-over of his past few days, hoping to avoid what put him under medical care.
And for about three-quarter of the book, it feels dull and interminable. The accumulation of historical details that Langdon absorbs is a flood of trivia that has little to do with the plot, and unless you happen to be fascinated by Florentine history to a level to rival the Roman, Parisian/Londonian and Washingtonian settings of the previous Langdon novels, chances are that Inferno will be a tough slog. Readers will make it through by repeating to themselves that it will get better, eventually. Or that the novel may work better if you’re on the ground in Florence, pointing at the things described in the novel.
And while it does get better, this change for the best comes at the expense of credibility-destroying narrative tricks in which villains are revealed to be heroes, allies are unmasked as psychopathological monsters and everything Langdon thought he knew (or more pointedly didn’t) crumbles as a sham. In order to do that, Brown has to skirt perilously close to lying to his audience –readers who don’t like such narrative sleight-of-hand won’t find much to love here. On the other hand, it does give a narrative kick in the pants to what had, until then, been a fairly sedate thriller, so there’s that.
But as the last act of the novel unfolds, my boredom at the novel transformed into annoyance, especially as the villain’s plan was revealed. While Brown does his damndest to give a shred of justification to the actions of his antagonist by pointing out the evils of overpopulation, his screed seems to be roughly forty years out of date, and unsupported by current research.
(To summarize a complex set of objections, in a nutshell: Overpopulation is real and dangerous, but unlike the alarmist predictions of the 1970s, we now know a few things: Big populations have advantages for just about everything, from medical care to arts development to scientific progress to a well-functioning economy to better models for feeding a densely-packed community. Better yet: Demographic statistics clearly demonstrate that overpopulation is a self-regulating problem, and that the world’s population will stabilize within a few decades –in fact is already doing so in large areas of the world. Furthermore, advances in agriculture, environmentalism and logistics show that sustainable populations are within reach –the realities of 2013 disprove most of the so-called “realistic” thinking of the 1970s. Simply put: Overpopulation is solving itself to non-problematic status.)
Lunatic thinking by a novel’s villain is, of course, nothing new or unexpected. The end of Inferno, however, suggests that this is lunatic thinking by the author himself. The world-changing stunt at the end of the novel is problematic on numerous levels. Even by the standards of previous novels, it may be time for Langdon to take an indefinite retirement while Brown moves on to other protagonists, because the universe he inhabits is getting cluttered by incompatible mythologies, radical events and Grand Revelations.
Other annoyances abound: After several bout with Brown’s tone-deaf style, I’m finally acknowledging that he could write better. I’m not at all pleased by the easy equation of trans-humanism with cuckoo-crazy antagonists. Langdon is still as boring a protagonist as it’s possible to write in popular fiction. The ending shows that the protagonist’s efforts all were for naught, negating the point of the narrative. And have I mentioned that before the frantic last quarter of the novel, practically nothing noteworthy happens as we’re fed reams of Florentine history?
Aas you already surely know, faithful reader, catastrophe theory is the study of “sudden shifts in behavior arising from small changes in circumstances”. None of what has annoyed me in Inferno (the digressions, the nonsense science, the bad writing, the repetitive plotting, allies revealed as villains, Langdon’s lack of personality, the insane plot twists) hasn’t shown up in at least two of Brown’s previous novels. But something has certainly changed since The Lost Symbol: myself as a reader, Brown’s smugness as a writer, the cultural matrix in which we live, or some deep zeitgeist shift barely perceptible through anyone’s Twitter feed. As a result, I find myself disenchanted by Inferno and generally put off by Dan Brown as a writer. His shtick doesn’t feel interesting any more, and I’m not at all tempted to defend him anymore. Small changes, big behavioral shifts: I don’t intend to buy his next novel. I’m pretty sure I already know how it turns out.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) Ensemble movies are a tricky mixture: there are usually too many characters and not enough running time to do them justice, and that’s even before getting into the sad fact that not all stories are equally as compelling. New Year’s Eve does its best at using pre-built sympathy for Dec.31 to launch a tapestry of romantic subplots, but the results are still variable. The links between the characters are intricate (sometimes even played for ironic laughs, as the moment near the end where we think two characters are racing to meet… only to pass each other on the street as they race to get to someone else) and figuring them out can be a good way to keep those synapses busy… but the real point of New Year’s Eve is a big mushy feeling of romantic satisfaction by the time the end credits roll. Director Garry Marshall does his best to keep everything interesting while juggling roughly two dozen name actors, but the script isn’t his best friend in this regard. In fact, New Year’s Eve may be most remarkable for its inability to deliver a consistently enjoyable subplot. Everything feels contrived, conventional, overly dramatic or implausible beyond belief. Zac Efron romancing Michelle Pfeiffer? Eh, why not –but don’t expect anyone but those two to care. While it’s hard to single out any actor as being better than the others, it’s not so difficult to identify those who are more irritating than others: Sofia Vergara is particularly exasperating in her usual shrill near-incomprehensible screen persona. Katherine Heigl also does herself no favour by reinforcing her already-annoying typecasting. Otherwise, the best the actors can do in this mess is to remain unnoticed. It’s not as if New Year’s Eve is dislikable; in fact, much of the issues with the film are that it tries so hard to be loved that it feels desperate in taking no chances. See it at the tail end of Dec.31 if you must, but don’t let it come between you and any meaningful contact with your loved ones.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) While we’re still a long way from treating Pixar’s newest films as "just another animated movie", the last few offerings from this one-infallible studio have been, well, flawed. Not bad, not terrible, just noticeably less accomplished as their best. Brave comes at a crucial junction in the company’s history, soon after being formally acquired by Disney. As such, it’s perhaps dismaying to find out that the narrative revolves around a princess: that particular Disney tradition feels overused enough that Pixar didn’t need to take it up as well. But let’s not be too harsh, because Brave isn’t the usual princess-in-peril story: in fact, it’s very much a Pixar film in how it tweaks a few expectations, upends usual narrative schemes and even explores new grounds for the company in centering around a strong female character. Our heroine Merida is very much her own young woman, and much of the film’s tension is in seeing her deal with what she wants as opposed to what is expected her… in addition to revisiting her relationship with people she knows. The synthetic visuals of Highland Scotland are beautiful, and Pixar’s flair with CGI-enhanced direction is still as good as ever. The story is engrossing despite a few concessions to the younger set (some easy gags, usually concerning the triplet characters), while the classic rebellious-teenager trope is handled with a fair bit of maturity. In a few words, preconceptions may be the single worst thing running against Brave: approaching it without the burden of previous Pixar and Disney movies may be the best thing in order to appreciate the film on its own terms.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) Let’s get something out in writing right away: As a confirmed fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I still have issues in seeing Tom Cruise cast as Reacher. It doesn’t have to do with Cruise’s diminutive frame trying to occupy Reacher’s hulk of a character –it has to do with the way Cruise never plays less than a superstar, whereas my mental image of Reacher has always been about the way he tries to be inconspicuous in order to better do his job… at least until being conspicuous best serves his purpose. But you can safely ignore this kvetching as another in an infinite line of book fans moaning about movie adaptations, because taken on its own and not as an adaptation of Child’s One Shot, Jack Reacher is a fairly strong thriller, with better-than-average plotting, efficient dialogues, solid direction and an unobtrusive sense of style. As with the novel, it takes a while for the true nature of the plot to emerge, and there is a satisfying amount of complications along the way. Cruise is his usual mister-megawatt-smile self, gamely hoping that his charisma will forgive the series’ built-in lack of character development and launch another franchise under his name. Well, I, for one, hope it goes forward –I may not love Reacher as much on the screen as I do on the page, but I would certainly go see other films in the series.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) One of the unsung tragedies of parenthood is the cold realisation that tales of teenage rebellion don’t quite seem as cool as they once were. But, of course, this isn’t the main problem with Hop –a bad script is. As the story is intent on uniting two teenage losers (a human slacker, and the runaway son of the Easter Rabbit) who seem determined to waste every advantage given to them, Hop forgets to give us a reason to care for them and focuses on various idiot-plotting pratfalls. At least there is something worth watching in the film’s more fantasy-driven sequences: The film’s introduction answer questions nobody ever thought about asking about the mechanics of Easter Egg distribution, while Peter de Seve’s creature design is almost too cute for words. Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about the film’s straightforward plotting, short duration or routine direction. The CGI-bunny/live-action integration is well done, but the human actors are so bland (with James Marsden apparently taking up roles that Seann William Scott is now too old to play) that it’s enough to make us wish for more CGI. Oh well; More special effects wouldn’t have softened the grating feeling left by Hop’s unpleasant characters. If nothing else, there are pretty bunnies everywhere in this film –might as well focus on the positive.