Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Vicky Cristina Barcelona</strong> (2008)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) The idea of septuagenarian Woody Allen writing/directing a romantic comedy starring a pair of young women may feel strange, but looking at the result in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you have to give Allen all the acclaim he deserves.  The film features two Americans holidaying in Barcelona: Rebecca Hall as the sensible one with a clear idea of her future and Scarlett Johansson as the flighty one in search of direction.  The fun begins when they both fall (at different times) for the same man, and the repercussions that this has over both women’s self-esteem and sense of identity.  That, perhaps, is where Allen’s maturity comes into play: by the end of the film, few questions have been settled satisfactorily, even though everyone seems to know a bit more about themselves.  As such, don’t expect a conventional crowd-pleaser, even though Vicky Cristina Barcelona is light-hearted enough to qualify as a comedy.  Good actors easily make up for whatever non-ending the film may have: While Johansson is decent as the titular Cristina, it’s Rebecca Hall who’s the film’s revelation as the brainier and more conflicted Vicky.  Javier Bardem is scarily good as the tall, dark, handsome stranger that shatters the heroines’ world, while Penelope Cruz is almost as striking as the one force of chaos that upsets Bardem’s character.  While the film doesn’t have enough of a conclusion to fully satisfy, it’s easy to get swept in this unconventional romantic comedy, and to appreciate the sights that Barcelona has to offer.

Psycho (1960)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Psycho</strong> (1960)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) More than half a century after release and its accession to the pantheon of pop-culture, is there something left to say about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho?  When movies such as Hitchcock are a fictionalized making-of, when the infamous shower scene has been parodied nearly everywhere, when the basic twist of the film has inspired an entire sub-genre of psycho-killer thrillers, it would seem as if all has been said and done.  And yet…  the sudden shift in structure signaled by the infamous shower scene remains as unsettling as it was (even though you can argue that it robs the film of a good chunk of its narrative energy), while the film remains effective in its small details.  Hitchcock was a master craftsman, and while his technique has been widely imitated, Psycho doesn’t feel as dated as other films of its time.  In fact, the most dated thing about it isn’t the black-and-white cinematography, obvious set design, stilted acting style or period details: It’s the awful ending monologue in which a psychologist explains in excruciating detail what subsequent generations of filmgoers now take for granted.  Still, Psycho keeps much of its power nowadays, and even viewers who may think they know everything about the film may find something new.  (For some reason, I feel pleased-as-punch that the film features a prominent CANADA in the middle of the screen for a relatively long shot.)  Plus, the ending monologue is still remarkably chilling.

Stand Up Guys (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Stand Up Guys</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) Getting old isn’t easy, and that goes for actors as much as for criminals.  Stand Up Guys has the merit of addressing both by featuring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken as a pair of aging gangsters trying to figure out the rest of their lives during one particularly event-worthy night.  Pacino’s character is freshly out of prison, while Walken’s character has orders to kill him before the night is over.  What happens next is a blend of good screenwriting, decent directing and capable veteran actors: Stand Up Guys becomes a breezy way to pass an hour and a half, coupled with a few things to say about aging and how people can break free from their past.  Some of the humor is extremely easy (much of the bordello scenes read like wish-fulfillment for older men) but some of the rest feels on-target as a reflection of older-tired characters that can’t wait for the end to come.  After a slow start, Stand Up Guys improves midway through as Alan Alda joins the proceedings for a few faster minutes.  While the episodic structure of the film can’t patch over a few unfortunate narrative choices (such as the avenging sequence), the ending is strong enough to satisfy in a somewhat-predictable fashion.  Fans of Pacino and Walken will get plenty to like, although Walken’s conflicted arc is more compelling than Pacino outright bombast.  While this isn’t a classic-in-the-making, it’s not a waste of time either, and it joins a small “aging superstar thriller” sub-genre alongside now-franchises such as Red and The Expendables.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Breakfast at Tiffany’s</strong> (1961)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) The problem with not having seen some classic movies is that after finally watching them, you wonder what took you so long.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s is essential viewing for at least two reasons: First up would be Audrey Hepburn, as beautiful and lively in this film as she has been in 1961.  Photos of her in her “little black dress” may be iconic, but you have to see the film to understand what made her a star.  The second reason to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be her character, Holly Golightly: As the incarnation of a newly-created character in American culture (the single young girl, enjoying life in the city), Holly would end up being the template for decades of similar characters all the way to Sex and the City’s lead characters.  The impact of the film is considerable even today, and that’s partly why it can’t be missed even today.  (The showcase party sequence still feels surprisingly modern.) Ironically, the film also deserves to be seen for the ways in which it undermines its own cultural legacy: Golightly may have been made an object of admiration and imitation by latter generations of single women, but the film fairly clearly underlines the desperation of her life, meddling with the mob and borderline-prostitution in order to make ends meet, her bubbly facade barely concealing a child-like mind barely able to cope with her current situation.  A read of Truman Capote original bittersweet novella only serves to highlight the very thin veneer of fun that the film puts over a rather sad situation: it’s hard to watch the film’s happy ending and feel that it won’t last very long.  (It’s also hard to watch the film and not cringe at Mickey Rooney’s crudely stereotypical portrayal of a Japanese character: While that kind of thing may have been acceptable half a century ago, it’s the one single thing that most damages and dates the film.)  For all of these reasons, and probably a few more than I’m forgetting, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains essential viewing well into the twenty-first century.

The Apparition (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Apparition</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) Here’s a bit of autobiographical content in order to make sense of this review: Growing up, the TV listings for movies broadcast in the Ottawa area included short critical appreciations by a service named Mediafilm, which ranked films on a scale of 1 (“Chef-d’oeuvre” or “Masterpiece”) to 7 (“Minable” or “Pathetic”).  Since Mediafilm ranks on a bell curve, very few movies earn either a 1 or a 7, and seeing one was a bit of an achievement. (For French-Canadians my age, the word minable itself remains closely associated with Mediafilm’s 7 rating.)   Mediafilm’s ratings are still used today, most visibly on cable provider Videotron’s online guides.  All of which to say that The Apparition is probably the first time in a long while that I approached a film (an actual film released in theaters, no less) knowing that it had received a minable rating.  The opening minutes of the movie easily confirm that it’s far from the upper end of the spectrum, as two separate prologues do a poor job at establishing an atmosphere of dread.  Soon enough, we’ve stuck with two young adults as they house-sit a mansion for relatives.  Given that this is a haunted-house kind of movie, strange and supposedly terrifying things start happening.  Somehow, though, the two characters remain far more terrified than the audience, all the way to a muddled conclusion in which taking refuge in a Costco display tent (no, really) fails to delay the inevitably grim ending.  Once the credits roll, the verdict is easy: The Apparition doesn’t have anything new, effective or even mildly entertaining to offer to horror-movie fans.  All of its plot components have been taken from other better movies, the execution is hilariously inept, the cinematography is strikingly ugly and director Todd Lincoln doesn’t have any idea how to make the most of the elements at his disposal.  At its best, The Apparition has a striking shot of a house in which the furniture has been re-arranged in twisted forms… and that’s it.  Sure, Ashley Greene looks good in a shower, and Tom Felton should ham it up in as many movies as possible, but none of this actually excuses The Apparition’s basement-bargain approach to haunted-house horror.  This is the kind of horror movies that give a bad name to the genre, string along the worst clichés of the form and barely presenting anything original, competent or engaging about the results.  While I’m a bit skeptical of Mediafilm’s 7 ranking (The Apparition is dull, but it’s not as stridently offensive as other terrible movies), I have no qualms at calling this film like it should: minable.

Imitation of Life (1959)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Imitation of Life</strong> (1959)

(On TV, July 2013) Dipping into Hollywood’s back-catalogue can be a strange experience, as films developed for an earlier generation can become interesting for things they didn’t intend.  So it is that Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life becomes fascinating as much for its period background detail than for its subject matter.  From a contemporary perspective, it’s certainly not a tightly-plotted feature film: The story jumps forward abruptly, doesn’t quite know what story it’s trying to tell and ends abruptly, leaving a bunch of threads up in the air.  Still, the point isn’t the story as much as the emotional problems that the characters have: The film’s most compelling plot strand has to do with a mixed-race teenager rejecting her racial heritage, and while the film’s dialogue may feel a bit melodramatic by today’s standards, there’s no denying the impact of lines such as “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?” The film’s other plot, about a suddenly-successful actress ignoring her daughter and leading on a suitor, is almost insufferably dull… except for studying bits and pieces of the decor and imagining being back in the 1950s.  Lana Turner is nice-but-boring in the lead role (much the same can also being said about Sandra Dee as her daughter) but the film’s most compelling performances easily belong to Juanita Moore and Susna Kohner as the estranged mother/daughter pair.  Imitation of Life has held up better than many films of its era not for the melodrama, but for the substance underneath.

The Girl Next Door (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Girl Next Door</strong> (2004)

(On TV, July 2013) I’m hardly the first person to comment upon the strange twisted relationship that American culture has with the pornographic industry (or sex in general): Any examination of the topic ends up revolving around a mixture of fascination, shame, immature comedy and half-veiled condemnation.  The Girl Next Door isn’t different, as this story of a high-school senior teenager falling for a porn star neighbor seems to borrow from John Hughes’ classic comedies (but even more so from Risky Business), even as it tries hard not to condone actual pornography.  It portrays porn as something both irresistible and immoral, the end message being that good guys (and girls) don’t really go all the way.  (Nearly a decade after release, The Girl Next Door’s biggest laugh is now completely at the film’s own expense: it’s the idea that a soft-core sex education film could sell widely to teenagers given the wide availability of hard-core content on the internet.)  Emile Hirsch is sympathetic as the all-American good kid while Elisha Cuthbert gets to smile and look pretty as the porn star (but never takes off her clothes; see “good girls don’t really go all the way” above), but it’s really Timothy Oliphant who steals the show as a porn producer who comes to ruin the hero’s life: it’s a fearless portrayal, and one that’s almost entirely magnetic despite the character’s menace.  By the usual standards of teenage sex comedies, The Girl Next Door is a mark above the rest of the pack: it’s well put-together, relatively amiable and has a heart where many similar film only have dirty thoughts.  Still, the ending half-hour shows the complex hoops a “safe” mainstream film aimed at teenagers must jump through in tackling pornography.  Now the question becomes: if the same premise was developed in 2014, would it make a difference?  One element of the answer: Watching this film on AMC is a strange experience, as much of the foul language is bleeped off… despite the film’s subject matter and occasional nudity.

One Life (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">One Life</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) Beautiful, warm and yet curiously unmemorable, One Life is a collection of short nature documentaries strung together by the barest of excuses about wildlife finding a way to live despite difficult circumstances… which usually summarizes most nature documentaries.  Daniel Craig’s smooth narration is serviceable enough, and the images are often simply spectacular, but trying to find something more to say about the film is an exercise in frustration: Few people do nature documentaries better than the BBC Earth people (recent advances in high-definition digital filmmaking mean that they now sport impeccable cinematography and unusually powerful sequences), and even the heavy anthropomorphism of the script isn’t enough to distract our attention.  One Life is good stuff to watch by the entire family, but you may struggle to find much of distinction in it.

Robot & Frank (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Robot & Frank</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) At a time when most Hollywood Science Fiction blockbusters seem to be exercises in over-the-top action and densely dazzling visuals with little left for heart and compassion, it’s good to find an antidote in the form of a low-key SF comedy.  Here, five minutes in the future, an aging robber reluctantly forms a bond with his newly-imposed robotic assistant, to the extent of recruiting his new buddy for one last score.  Filmed with a surprisingly low budget, Robot & Frank even dispenses with extensive special effects work by using a simple robot suit worn by dancer Rachael Ma: it’s a film about relationships and subtle ideas, not really about spectacular visuals.  Frank Langella is essential to the film as the protagonist with a troubled past: he anchors the film in a believable reality and effectively acts as a foil to the entire cast as they all seem determined to do what’s best for him.  Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon is lovely as an aging librarian who becomes the object of his affection, and Liv Tyler makes the most out of limited screen-time as a daughter who learns better.  Much of the film is a slow burn, executed with calm and confidence.  It does builds up to an effective moral dilemma, though, and its exploration of memory (the tragedy of losing it, but also the curse of remembering everything) is as subtle as any film about aging could hope to feature.  While some late-film twists and revelations fail to convince, much of Robot & Frank remains charming in its own quiet way.  One of the best things about the mainstreaming of Science Fiction and the greater availability of filmmaking tools is that SF movies can now reflect a variety of viewpoints.  The blockbusters are here to stay, thankfully, but it’s good to know that there’s something else out there.

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson

<em class="BookTitle">2312</em>, Kim Stanley Robinson

Orbit, 2012, 576 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-09812-0

I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half doing things other than reading voraciously, and as a result I’m not as up-to-date on the state of written Science-Fiction as I used to be.  Gone are the days when I could read a just-published book and justifiably call it one of the year’s best: Now I’m not even keeping up with the slate of Hugo-nominated novels.  Years ago, I would have read Robinson’s 2312 within a week of publication: Now, I’m belatedly coming to it after it winning the Nebula and being on the Hugo short-list.  But then again, years ago I would have given it unqualified praise.  Now, with a bit of perspective, I have a few doubts to share.

The good news, without any doubt, is that 2312 showcases Robinson in heavy-duty Science Fiction futurism mode, harkening back (sometimes ironically) to Robinson’s Mars trilogy.  It’s the kind of sweeping mid-future tour of the Solar System that makes up the core of the written SF genre, and yet seems so rare nowadays.  It’s a vision of the future that’s big and grand and optimistic and filled with complexities.  It’s a big fat novel designed to show ideas –there’s a plot somewhere in the novel, but it’s not nearly as important as seeing our protagonists experience life circa 2312.

Our protagonist is Swan, an impulsive artist/ecodesigner who gets involved in a system-wide investigation following the death of her grandmother and an attack on her Mercurian home-city.  She soon comes to spend a lot of time with Fitz Wahram, a cool diplomat who is in many ways opposite to her personality.  This fire-and-ice romance ends up being one of the book’s plot driver, the other being the quest to unearth a conspiracy designed at taking over the various political entities of the Solar System. 

But reading 2312 for the plot (or the strangely off-putting characters) is a bit of a waste when the novel seems to be built around experiential set-pieces.  The novel is structured as a series of episodes as Swan makes her way throughout the Solar System, living life to its fullest by taking advantage of the various opportunities offered to her.  She hears opera on Mercury, surfs Saturn’s ice-rings, drops animals over the Canadian wilderness, and runs with the wolves within traveling asteroids.  There are a lot of big ideas on display along the way (some of them recycled and updated from previous Robinson works, such as the roving city of Terminator), facilitated by the explicit encyclopedic passages that are an essential chunk of the structure of the novel. (Thanks, John Dos Passos!)

For seasoned SF fans and Robinson enthusiasts, it’s hard to read the book without missing the various shout-outs to classic SF works dropped without ceremony in the text itself.  There’s a self-referential bit of plotting in that for a writer best known for his Mars trilogy, Robinson never allows his system-spanning plot to go on Mars except at the very ending of the novel, once the conflicts and contradictions have been resolved.  Anyone familiar with Robinson’s work will also see that the characters’ hobbies (in particular their tendency to go trekking in the wilderness at the slightest opportunity) seems to be a direct extension of the author’s interests.

You can see what kind of reception this core-genre SF book may receive.  Seasoned old-school Science Fiction fans are likely to love this book.  It feels like an updated and beefed-up version of the kind of plot-light futuristic travelogues that Arthur C. Clarke did so well thirty years ago, or the kind of solar-system tour of wonders that John Varley attempted in his heyday.  It’s a kind of SF that feels familiar, comfortable and positively inspiring after the genre’s recent fascination with the apocalypse in all of its forms.  I have no qualms to state that I loved most of 2312 and wish that they would be many more SF novels in the same vein.  Robinson can be a frustratingly uneven writer, but this novel is one of his good ones.

On the other hand…

Reading the online chatter about the book has been both illuminating and exasperating.  For every bad review where the reader approached the book antagonistically, there has been comments reminding me that Robinson’s aims with 2312 are centered at a fairly narrow group of core-SF readers.  Info-dumps are features for the kind of readers Robinson is writing for, but I can see why more casual readers may be put off.  Heck, Robinson’s interests aren’t exactly mine, and when his characters go out of their way to enjoy pastimes typical of wealthy educated left-leaning upper-middle-class Californians, it’s hard not to feel left out or, worse, feel that this shiny view of the future doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone else’s.

This idea ties into the “irrefragable Africa” passage that so rightfully annoyed and enraged some readers.  To sum up the controversy: In the middle of a Solar System bustling with activity, Robinson’s protagonist goes to Earth (where things are usually bad, as the planet staggers under the impact of global climate change and entrenched political/economic systems), and then to Africa where she finds herself stymied by a continent that seemingly refuses help from well-meaning richer people.  She leaves in frustration, concluding that Africa is forever doomed to act against its own self-interest despite the righteous intervention of people who (from the protagonist’s perspective) know much better.

It’s hard to know where to begin in taking down this small piece of the novel.  Perhaps by pointing out the terrible legacy of colonialism and then the neo-colonialism that took its place?  Perhaps by pointing out that this vision of a self-defeating Africa ignores the real and tangible progress being made continent-wide for the past few decades?  Perhaps by reminding first-world readers that their hopes and aspirations should not be imposed on a continent?  Robinson gets half-points for mulling that all of Earth in 2312 is just as self-defeating, but he should understand that he’s writing at a time where SF’s shortcomings in matters of class, inclusiveness, racism and sexism are under intense scrutiny.  Any slip-up is likely to be criticized, let alone a spectacularly dumb passage like this one, which feels like a rich Californian punching down at a less-privileged target. 

This, in turn, easily leads to a contemplation of the current state of the Science Fiction genre.  I have an awful suspicion that 2312 may be one of the last big hurrah of the genre at it used to exist, in particularly the WASP Southern-California school of SF as it shined most brightly in the 1970s and 1980s.  Writers such as Bear, Benford, Brin, Niven and Robinson: save for Robinson, who has earned some general literary renown, most of those writers aren’t the dominant voices they used to be.  Science Fiction is changing profoundly and rapidly, shattering in a million pieces that reflect the increasing diversity of its authorship and audience.  We should be welcoming this change for the better SF it brings, but at the same time it’s becoming obvious that some of the older guard is having trouble keeping up. 

2312 wouldn’t have earned half the disappointed comments it got had it not explicitly positioned itself at the cutting edge.  It’s supposed to be as inclusive a vision of the future as it can be (and for his slip-ups, Robinson has at least presented a joyously polymorphous future when it comes to gender and sexual preferences), meaning that it invites non-inclusiveness criticism by default.  I may think that Robinson has done a pretty good job –but then again I’m pretty close to Robinson’s demographic profile.  It may take another kind of writer to write about a future that acknowledges and celebrates a greater audience.  And as I read less and less SF, it dawns on me that it may take another kind of reader to best appreciate it.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) So there it is: the final conclusion of the Twilight “Saga”, after five seemingly-interminable films that were often more laughable than effective.  If you sense some weary resignation in the preceding statement, then you probably understand how the series divides fans from onlookers.  Fans will love it, while onlookers will wonder aloud at the series’ substantial plot holes, backward social attitudes and pacing issues.  Fans will go nuts for the overblown ending (complete with written passages of Stephenie Meyer’s novel, and a lavish slideshow of every single actors to have played in the series) while onlookers will wonder when the thing will actually end.  Plot-wise, the split of the series’ final book has taken its toll: After the events of the previous film, this one seems unsure of what to do: The villains announce their intention to come make trouble, then take weeks to come around –leaving the protagonist to mount a defense of sorts.  Various vampires with superpowers are brought in (and it’s hard not to laugh when emotionless protagonist Bella’s superpower is explained as being a really effective superpower wet blanket), various stereotypes are presented on-screen (Irish vampires with a drinking problem?  No, no, no…) and the film puts all the pieces in place for a big fake-out of a conclusion that wimps out just as it becomes interesting (and also has it both ways, almost).  Bill Condon does fine as a director with the material he’s given (he even gets to helm a large-scale special-effects sequence.), while the usual trio of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner are up to their now-usual standards as the protagonists.  It goes without saying that this final installment, more than any others, is for the fans: If you’re still hating and watching after five movies, then there’s no helping you.

Sharknado (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sharknado</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) I’m strangely conflicted about films that aim to be as ludicrously awful as possible.  Shouldn’t there be a limit to the amount of intentionally-bad filmmaking we subject ourselves?  Should we consider ourselves on holidays from conventional criticism when watching intended tripe?  Are we sending the wrong message to producers by supporting such abominations?  Suffice to say that in July 2013, SyFy-original TV movie Sharknado became a minor Internet phenomenon, celebrated as much for its insane premise (a tornado strikes Los Angeles… throwing sharks!) as for the cheapness of its execution.  Twitter went wild for #sharknado and the intensity of the frenzy made it easy to focus on the film-as-summer-phenomenon rather than the film as itself.  What many casual observers may not have known is that made-for-SyFy original movies are usually terrible, and just as often ludicrously high-concept (Sharktopus, anyone?)  Compared to those low-budget geeksploitation films, Sharknado actually doesn’t fare too badly: It’s terribly made, incompetently scripted and insultingly paced, but it has some panache when it comes to insane set-pieces, features reasonably competent actors, and at least shows us something we haven’t seen before.  (For truly dire and joyless films, look elsewhere in SyFy “catastrophe SF” roster)  Still, it’s practically impossible to appreciate Sharknado with a straight face, leading anyone to wonder once again: What’s the point of this?  At which point has anyone seen enough good movies to revel in bad ones?  Grump, grump.

Upside Down (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Upside Down</strong> (2012)

(Video on Demand, July 2013) As a seasoned Science Fiction fan, I rarely have trouble with suspension of disbelief: if a film has an outrageous premise, I’m usually more than willing to grant it immunity from nitpicking.  But I have my limits, and Upside Down reached them in about thirty seconds with a triad of absurdly made-up rules about its invented universe.  I’m good with the idea of dual worlds facing themselves; I’m even willing to allow that objects from one world can only gravitate to that world.  But having stuff from opposite worlds catch on fire when held too long against each other?  That’s arbitrary to the point of ludicrousness, and things don’t improve once the film starts developing the world it sketches with its three opening statements: We’re supposed to believe in socioeconomic exploitation of one world by another when matter from one world can’t even enter in contact with the other one. (Hint: political allegory doesn’t work if the underlying metaphor doesn’t.)  The longer and the more detailed Upside Down goes on, the more ludicrous it becomes.  Now, a reasonable objection to this may be that the film is supposed to be a fable about two ill-fated lovers, and that’s true.  The problem is that the story itself is so well-worn and bare-bones as to leave plenty of time for world-building contemplation, with terrible results: the film feels artificial to a degree that even its spectacular visuals can’t overcome, and all of its wit in the presentation of its worlds can’t really compensate for the inanity of its premise.  Writer/director Juan Solanas has a good eye for arresting images, but the whole justification for them just isn’t satisfying.  It doesn’t help that Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess are blander-than-bland as the romantic leads.  As much as I’d like to be kind about a Franco-Canadian film shot in Montréal (and even featuring remarkable local actors such as Holly O’Brien), there isn’t enough to Upside Down to earn more than a recommendation based on pure visuals.  The story isn’t there, and the premise simply doesn’t work.

The Perfect Boss (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Perfect Boss</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) Ever the optimist, I keep watching made-for-TV movies in the hopes that some of them will be better than the usual dreck that goes for those kinds of films.  The Perfect Boss certainly won’t do much to raise my future hopes: While the premise suggests an interesting antagonist in the person of a high-powered psychopathic female executive, the sad reality of the film doesn’t live up to even modest expectations: Jamie Luner is a complete dud as the antagonist, her face seemingly unable to move above the eyes, and the rest of her performance barely being more expressive.  The title of the film barely makes sense, as the conflict between the antagonist and the young-woman protagonist who pieces together her involvement in her father’s death doesn’t even allow the two to be in direct contact.  The script occasionally manages a few clever moments, but much of it is stock material out of anti-pharma diatribes and sociopath case studies.  The one kernel of interest that the film has for Ottawa-area viewers is that the film was shot at a number of locations around the city: Savvy viewers will spot a Vanier street, MacArthur Bowling, Tea Party and the conference area of Casino Lac Leamy.  Unfortunately, this really isn’t enough to make The Perfect Boss particularly compelling: while it’s not abysmally bad, it’s no really good either, and there are plenty of other, better thrillers out there.

For a Good time, Call… (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">For a Good time, Call…</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) Saying that a comedy doesn’t have a lot of laughs is usually a bad sign, but not always.  Sometimes, a “comedy” only qualifies as such because it features sympathetic characters doing amusing things in ways that result for a happy ending for everyone.  Such films don’t need to be constantly hilarious to be entertaining, and that’ s how we end up talking about For a Good Time, Call…, a gentle good-natured comedy in which two young women end up starting their own phone sex line in order to make ends meet.  It’s a low-budget film that doesn’t entirely feel like one, due to a good script, competent direction and cameo appearances from well-known friends/family of writer/star Lauren Miller.  (The cast list features Justin Long and Nia Vardalos, as well as cameos from Seth Rogen and Kevin “Welcome to New Jersey!” Smith… and a small but remarkable performance by Stephanie Beard)  Still, this is truly Ari Graynor’s film, as she brings life to a tricky character and manages considerable chemistry with her co-star Miller, which becomes increasingly important as the two characters develop a platonic womance.  The subject matter including phone sex, adult toys and straight-up sex, it goes without saying that film does contain a bit of raunch.  Still, the film is far sweeter than crass (subject matter aside, there’s little here to warrant more than a PG-13 rating) and leaves viewers with a smile.  Which is all it needed to do.