(On Cable TV, September 2013) Buzzwords from Silver Linings Playbook’s script read like a bingo card of stuff I don’t particularly care about: mild mental illness, ballroom dancing and rabid sports fandom. So it’s perhaps a relief more than anything else that this dramatic comedy ends up being better than expected. Much of the praise should go to Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who manage to navigate a tricky path in portraying badly-flawed characters that nonetheless become endearing. Lawrence, in particular, portrays a character far beyond her age, rounding an increasingly multifaceted screen persona. The rest of the film’s success should go to writer/director David O. Russell, who doesn’t specialize in easy movies and here manages to deliver a refreshing blend of independent sensibilities with Hollywood A-list actors. The mixture is tricky and doesn’t always work (Anyone bored with sports fandom will find lengthy stretches of the film almost interminable, although Lawrence does get a laugh out-playing superstitious armchair statisticians.) but Silver Linings Playbook does work more often than it should and that’s enough to qualify it as a success.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) Now that 1980s kids have not only climbed the ladders of pop-culture production, but also form a substantial part of the paying audience, it’s no surprise that eighties nostalgia should pop up everywhere. (It’ll get worse; we’re within ten years of a nineties revival.) Given that video games were The New Thing for eighties kids, it’s no surprise that something like Wreck-It Ralph should make it to the big screen: An animated film exploiting videogame history seems like a natural fit, perfectly adapted to the kind of stories in the Pixar/Disney mold. Clearly, Walt Disney Animation Studios have learned a lot from stable-mates Pixar (and creative director John Lasseter) because Wreck-It Ralph is as good as most of the Pixar films at exploiting a high-concept premise and setting a solid narrative within strange environments: As eight-bit villain Ralph sets out to become a hero in other newer games, we get a look at the inner life of videogame characters, plenty of cameos from thirty+ years of gaming and a rather solid story as well. The film flows easily, and while it spends a bit too much time in Sugar Rush, there’s plenty to see and laugh about every few moments. The visuals are spectacular, but Wreck-It Ralph never forgets that it needs a story and compelling characters. Even non-gamers should be charmed by the film even as they miss many of the big and small in-jokes that pepper its running time. As far as corporate exercises in nostalgia are concerned, this is actually pretty good. It makes a powerful argument, alongside Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Winnie the Pooh, about Walt Disney Animation Studio’s surging relevance at a time where more and more animation companies are vying for attention.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) There’s something intensely familiar with Tim Burton’s Frankenwwenie, and that’s a good thing: After nearly a decade in the wilderness, here he is revisiting old obsessions and directing a film that’s close to the goth-suburban aesthetics of his early work, most particularly the classic Edward Scissorhands. Inspired by two short films from Burton’s early career, Frankenweenie depicts a boy’s adventures after resurrecting his pet dog. His secret doesn’t hold, his friends all try to emulate him and soon enough the entire neighborhood has problems with undead pets. Filmed in sharp black-and-white stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie becomes homage to Frankenstein and Burton’s work, obviously, but also to sub-genres of horror cinema including kaiju monster cinema. It’s not exactly a breath of fresh air, but it’s competently executed, somewhat charming for audiences with some horror-film background and a welcome return to form for Burton after a string of mystifying misfires. It’s worth a look, even though it may ultimately prove to be forgettable.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) Sometimes, you can judge a film by its title. So it is that The Possession’s bland, forgettable, overused title also reflects a film that is, in most ways, absolutely unremarkable: From the something-awful-happens opening to the evil-survives-to-strike-again conclusion, all the way through a tiresome demonic possession plot, The Possession is by-the-numbers horror filmmaking, occasionally effective as earning an ouch or an eeew, but never quite working its way down in the murky basement of primal fears. It’s safely conventional, and the film’s best moments aren’t in the sometimes-gratuitous violent supernatural episode as much as in the character work within an estranged family pulling apart. Jeffrey Dean Morgan isn’t bad as the protagonist, a divorced father trying to hold on to his daughters’ affections even as one of them is taken over by a demon. And there’s something rather unusual in seeing Hassidic Jews being brought in to help. Still, there isn’t much more in The Possession than we haven’t seen before. Director Ole Bornedal, in interviews (and in-between the usual twaddle about this being “based on a true story”) attempts to draw parallels between demonic possession and divorce, but the evidence for this thematic ambition just isn’t shown on-screen. No amount of moderately successful execution manages to fill the big empty void in the middle of the script. While there are many worse horror films out there, they are also plenty that are more engaging, more meaningful or better executed… so why waste time on something so disposable?
(On Cable TV, September 2013) There’s something admirable in trying to deliver a foreign political thriller on a low budget and that’s exactly what Ruba Nadda attempt with Inescapable, as a Canadian man goes back to his native Syria in order to find his missing adult daughter. It soon turns out that she was there in order to investigate her father’s past, and that he had made a number of enemies before leaving. Alexander Siddig stars as a man with a tumultuous past who has to get back in the covert operations mindset in order to find and free his daughter. The surprise here is Marisa Tomei, surprisingly convincing as an aging Syrian woman bitterly helping her ex-fiancée against the multiple enemies he still has in Damascus. Inescapable has a number of interesting elements, but it may not have the means to make them work effectively: despite the tangled web of allegiances and secrets shared by the film’s characters, the film takes forever to heat up, and ends without a satisfying coda. For all of the film’s accomplishment in evoking a spy thriller set in Syria (despite being filmed in South Africa with Canadian money), Inescapable is a bit too bland to be interesting as more than a home-grown curiosity. The action sequences are filmed without particular flair, and the stand-offs don’t have enough energy to resonate. Some secrets look far-fetched (how long did the daughter spend with the diplomat?) while others don’t have much of an impact. There’s little tension to the proceedings –it’s tough to even believe that the daughter is in danger, and the ending seems wrapped in mystery more than precipitated by the protagonist’s actions. As much as world-aware Canadian efforts such as this one are to be applauded on general principle, Inescapable’s execution is a bit too ordinary to warrant much attention.
(On TV, September 2013) Marriage isn’t easy, and as the sorely tempted protagonist of I Think I Love My Wife discovers, nobody has the answers leading to perpetual bliss. Written and directed by Chris Rock, this comedy is an honest (if uneven) look at the life of a bored husband suddenly seduced by someone from his past. Rock keeps the lead role for himself, giving the female lead role as the temptress to Kerry Washington. (Meanwhile, poor Gina Torres is stuck as the nagging shrew, but that’s how the script goes.) Much of the film’s best laughs come from its cynical observational humor, especially in the first part of the film as the protagonist can’t help but let his domestic disillusionment contaminate even his fantasies. (But then again, the film is co-written by Louis C.K., who’s made a career out of domestic disillusionment.) Rock is sympathetic enough as the lead, and the film does toy, as expected, with how far it can go while keeping our sympathy. The one single biggest false note of the film comes late as the married couple inexplicably launches into song, killing what should have been a heartfelt moment with dumb silliness. Much of I Think I Love My Wife is a bit messy (in that some tangents quickly go nowhere) and it’s considerably tamer than Rock’s stand-up act. Fortunately, Rock isn’t too bad as a director, and the film does have a decent comic timing. While the result is bland enough to have sunk back in obscurity six years later, it’s not a bad film, and there are enough good laughs here and there to make it worth viewing.
(Video on-demand, September 2013) Anyone with an interest in director Michael Bay’s career was eagerly anticipating this film: While Bay usually works with stratospheric budgets, wall-to-wall explosions, wild chases and omnipresent special effects, how would he deliver a low-budgets crime drama? Fortunately, the result turns out to be interesting: Filmed with a relatively-paltry 22$M, Pain & Gain is a high-energy, low-morals crime thriller that harkens back to Bay’s Bad Boys films more than anything else. Set in Miami, the film ends up playing like of those Florida-noir comedy-crime novels, with stupid criminals, reprehensible victims, duped collaborators and misguided law-enforcement officials. Everyone is a bit crazy in Miami, and as our idiotic bodybuilding antiheroes get seduced into a life of crime, the plot gets loopier and loopier. Mark Wahlberg is effective as a hustler (over-)taken by a self-improvement mindset; meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson is also remarkable as a self-destructive ex-con periodically restrained by his faith. The film, however, really belongs to Bay, as he uses his usual glossy rapid-fire style to enliven an already-colorful story. Pain & Gain moves quickly, seldom bores (although it occasionally disgusts) and is frequently hilarious as well. There’s even a critique of the “American Dream” rhetoric if you look closely enough, which may be the deepest intellectual content in a Michael Bay film so far. It won’t take much to make viewers regret the fiercely amoral thrust of the story (Bay is more likely to celebrate excess than to reign in good taste, and the gory excesses of Pain & Gain are similar to those in Bad Boys II), something that may weaken the film’s crazy-Florida-noir appeal. While based on a true story, Pain & Gain takes a lot of liberties with the material… so don’t trust everything you see on-screen. Heck, Bay even gets to throw in a car chase and an explosion. The film is a bit long, which becomes a bit of a problem with Bay’s in-your face brashness: the second half isn’t quite as much fun as the first. Still, the result is interesting, making anyone welcome Bay’s efforts whenever he gets a break from his mega-budgeted special-effects epics.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Writer/director/activist Josh Fox made headlines in 2010 with Gasland, a feature-length documentary that exposed environmental concerns surrounding the rapid development of hydraulic fracturing gas extraction in the United States. Overnight, “fracking” became a cause célèbre, Gasland ended up nominated for an Oscar and environmentalists everywhere got a new thing to worry about. Gasland Part II pick up the story three years later, and the result is even depressing than the original: Practically everyone who had problems in the first film still has them in the second, fracking has actually increased and enough time has gone by to see the gas industry counter-attack its critics. Gasland Part II may sport Fox’s mixture of information and entertainment, but it doesn’t have much to say: much of its running time is spent either re-establishing the film’s points, or recognizing that there hasn’t been any significant progress on the issue. It feels rather more than an episode in a series (or a second film in a trilogy) than a wholly new documentary. Combined to the doom-and-gloom atmosphere of the subject matter, it makes for a documentary that’s interesting without being particularly pleasant. While the film isn’t without humor (there’s a moment, three-quarter through, where Fox essentially says “So, congress is corrupt. What else is new? Roll the credits!” and actually does so for a short time.) Gasland Part II is, perhaps paradoxically, definitely aimed at those who already don’t need to be convinced about its central thesis.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) After seeing many comedies so grounded in realism that they only qualified for the genre label by virtue of not killing off anyone, it’s almost refreshing to see a comedy so unapologetically dedicated to letting big laughs as Ted. From the high-concept opening (boy wishes for his stuffed bear to become alive; bear obliges), Ted is shameless in trying for the maximum number of laughs in the time it has. Alas, this usually means going for the lowest common denominator, so don’t be surprised at the film’s crass and unsubtle humor: Much of Ted is about seeing a cute teddy bear swear and behave badly, and while that works for a while, it’s a strategy with limited potential. Mark Wahlberg is quite good as an ordinary guy trying to find a way between adult life and the remnants of his childhood, with a good voice performance by writer/director Seth MacFarlane and a fine supporting performance by Mila Kunis. (Nora Jones’ cameo is also pretty funny.) Some of the jokes work well (ie; the hotel room fight), and when they don’t (ie; much of the specific pop-culture references –who else can be so fascinated by Flash Gordon?) there’s usually another mildly-funny gag a few seconds later. Boston also has a nice role playing itself, with enough picturesque checkmarks to make the local tourist board happy. Still, this is a film aimed at blue collar guys, and those with low tolerance for penile jokes (some of them bordering on homophobia and others on misogyny) may want to lower their expectations. While Ted definitely has some thematic potential in the way it literalizes the process letting go of one’s immaturity, it’s not in itself mature enough to commit to a satisfying conclusion: I was actually disappointed at the feel-good no-changes conclusion, mostly because the film demands otherwise (and tries to have it both ways as well.) While Ted is well-made enough, and occasionally charming in its relentless attempt to be funny, it’s not quite the film it could have been with just a bit more wit and depth.
Anchor Canada, 2004, 560 pages, C$23.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-385-66004-4
It’s hard to find out a book that lives up to its hype, especially when the hype is near-unanimous. For years, I’d heard about Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in numerous book-recommendation lists, usually accompanied with superlatives about it being an exemplary work of science vulgarization, and the kind of book fit to expand minds.
So imagine my surprise in finding out that A Short History of Nearly Everything lives up to its intimidating hype. The most surprising thing about the book’s success may be that Bill Bryson is not a trained scientist. Nor was he, prior to the book’s publication, known as a science writer: His output until then focused on light-hearted travel books and other personal essays. A Short History of Nearly Everything was designed to be something else: A 500-page behemoth taking on all of creation, doubling as an exploration of the state of scientific knowledge and where much of what we know about the universe comes from. In the book’s introduction, Bryson flat-out sates that he wrote the book for himself, to self-learn what he through he’d missed in his formal education, and to patch the holes left by dull science textbooks.
He succeeds admirably well. A Short History of Nearly Everything is supposed to start at the Big Bang and end at the dawn of human history, but the entire book is a celebration of the human drive for knowledge. In discussing Earth’s formation, for instance, Bryson spends as much time telling us how scientists came to understand what we know about the Earth. There are numerous anecdotes about the early days of science, and the heroic sacrifices required to find out things that we now take for granted. Disastrous expeditions seem to be the norm for 19th century science, even (especially) when they lead to comparatively mundane innovations such as topographical map contour lines. A Short History of Nearly Everything presents the scientist as a hero, and well-chosen portraits make it clear that even ordinary people can make extraordinary discoveries. Little of it is dull given how the scientist-as-an-eccentric becomes a constant through much of the narrative.
Even for readers with a good general scientific background, the list of new and unexpected nuggets of information and overarching links between disparate fields to be gleaned from the book is astonishing. Nearly every page has a fascinating snippet or two, and Bryson’s generalist instincts serve him well in drawing evocative parallels between dissimilar areas. It helps a lot that Bryson knows how to write smooth and easy yet factually-dense prose. He’s as insightful as he is hilarious, and the resulting blend is simply intoxicating. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a fantastically well-written book, and the prose style is just as entertaining as the subject matter.
More than celebrating science, though, A Short History of Nearly Everything is perhaps at its most interesting when it charts the circa-2005 limits to human knowledge. He acknowledges the limits of what we know and the ways we think we figured it out: It turns out that our understanding of fossils is based on a far small sample than you may expect, and that several areas of human knowledge remain curiously under-explored. Rather than cast doubt on science itself, those gaps and paper-thin inferences only serve to inspire: There is still a lot of science left to be done, and the way we’ve been able to learn so much from so little, is nothing short of awe-inspiring at our own human cleverness.
Nearly ten years after the book’s writing, and at a time when it seems that nearly every scientific popularization is riddled with errors and simplification, you may expect A Short History of Nearly Everything to be similarly undermined by a long list of errors. But a look through reviews and commentary about the book merely reveals a distressingly short list of errors for such a big book and general praise from knowledgeable audiences. (Although I’ve been able to find a few strongly dissenting voices, most of those are in the form of forum posting, not well-argued reviews. Leave any in the comments, please..)
Frankly, A Short History of Nearly Everything is such an exceptionally good book that the worst thing I can say about it is that I’m already mad at having forgotten a substantial chunk of it. Get the book, read it and be amazed, not only at the prose, but what it tells us about ourselves. Then don’t be surprised to find yourself praising its merits to others.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Given how little TV-as-TV I watch, I never expected to mark an entire Emmy category as “complete”, but in-between HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Parade’s End, The Girl and now Phil Spector, I’m all caught-up with the 2013 “Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie” category even before it’s awarded. There’s certainly no finer reason to watch Phil Spector than to see good acting from Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, facing each other down as, respectively, a powerful music industry executive accused of murder and one of his defense lawyer. It’s based the true story of Spector’s first trial (although not really, as the opening disclaimer sort-of-clarifies), but it’s perhaps best appreciated as a standalone court drama, featuring a pair of highly unusual characters. Al Pacino is his usual intense self as Spector; he even gets a change to indulge in his signature rants late in the film. Meanwhile, Mirren is in a class of her own as a hypochondriac but steel-nerved lawyer with an uncanny ability to defend her client no matter the circumstances. (Phil Spector’s look at a high-priced defense, with war room and expert-driven strategies, is worth a look by itself.) The film may indulge in showing the most eccentric aspect of Spector’s personality, but it’s also somewhat sympathetic to him, creating reasonable doubt that he may not have actually committed the murder for which he was accused. Phil Spector remains a made-for-TV movie, but with David Mamet writing and directing for HBO, it features high-quality dialogue and decent production values: if nothing else, it’s a good way to enjoy good actors playing interesting people. Al Pacino as Phil Spector? That’s always worth watching.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a confirmed but not dogmatic Star Trek fan, I find this new movie-reboot-series interesting: It’s not quite the same Star Trek that established the reputation of the series, but it holds its own as an ongoing series of action-based SF adventures. This second entry builds on the first one in that it doesn’t really have to re-establish all of the characters, giving more time and freedom to tell a new story. That it’s pieced together from bits and pieces of other Trek miscellanea (I recognized at least three minor references to the original series, and I wasn’t paying that much attention) is a bit unfortunate, as it constantly invites comparisons that may not work to its favour. There certainly are a few problems with Into Darkness: As in the first film, the screenwriters clearly don’t understand anything about science or basic plausibility (A spaceship plunging into the sea? A major engagement in lunar orbit and no automated defense mechanism says boo?) and can’t be bothered to think twice about their universe-changing plot contrivances (Trans-warp? Resurrection serums?). This laziness keeps Into Darkness from being taken seriously as some of the finest recent examples of filmed SF: this isn’t 1983, and there’s a lot of good original SF on-screens to pick from. In order to compete, even a Star Trek reboot has to bring something to the table, and what Into Darkness has in spade is action: Director J.J. Abrams’ film is filled with high-end sequences mixing top-notch visuals with fast-paced tension and quite a bit fewer lens flares than the first film. The characters don’t hurt either, as it’s almost ridiculously entertaining to watch Chris Pine as the impulsive Kirk play off Zachary Quinto’s cool Spock. The rest of the crew also does well, proving the virtue of that particular cast selection back in 2009. This time, though, the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous super-man Khan makes for far better drama than the first film: Cumberbatch is delicious as an antagonist, and there’s enough tension for an entire film in seeing him work alongside the Enterprise crew for vastly different reasons. Despite the departure from Trek’s all-optimism canon, I’m not unhappy to see tensions within Starfleet used as primary plot devices: This reboot is setting a nice bar in terms of dramatic interest, and fractious inner politics are a good measure of this pseudo-realism. So it is that while it’s possible (and maybe even necessary) to nit-pick this film to shred, I’m not dissatisfied at all with the result. My biggest wish for the inevitable third entry, though, would be to move farther away from Trek canon: a contemporary action-driven film series isn’t the same as a low-budget sixties serial, and any attempts to keep the two tightly linked can only frustrate everyone.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) The story of Linda Lovelace, first-ever porn star thanks to a starring role in the wildly popular Deep Throat, is a classic case of she-said-she-then-said: Lovelace (co-)wrote four autobiographies, and their content varied with time: The first two are very much pro-pornography at a time where she was riding Deep Throat’s popularity, the last two very much against it at a time when she was campaigning against obscenity and free to speak against her abusive then-husband. Lovelace unusually tries to grapple with this complex portrait by presenting Lovelace’s life twice: first as a success story, and then as the darker, more abusive version of it. It may not completely work (the scenes become sketches rather than flow harmoniously from one another, and the simplification of Linda-the-victim is unfortunate given the complexity of her life after porn and after being used by feminist activism), but it’s an interesting attempt that brings an unusual twist to the usual bio-drama genre. What is undeniable, though, is Amanda Seyfried’s performance in what may be the first truly adult role she’s played so far –far away from the post-teenage ingénues that fill her filmography. As for the rest of the film, well, it convincingly re-creates the seventies, features a darkly amusing cameo by James Franco as Hugh Hefner and has a nearly-unrecognizable Sharon Stone in a maternal role (!) alongside a gruff Robert Patrick. Lovelace may not be the complete story of Linda Boreman, but it goes further than could have been expected in presenting both sides of it.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I really wished I liked this film more than I actually do. After all, I’m a near-addict to the kind of fast-paced, slick commercial filmmaking that Now You See Me represents at its best, and I’m fond of thematic parallels between stage magic and thriller moviemaking. The story of four skilled magicians involved in a revenge caper that they don’t entirely understand, Now You See Me is fun to watch and filled with interesting actors: Jesse Eisenberg is perfecting his alpha-nerd persona, Mark Ruffalo is fast settling as a dependable protagonist, while Woody Harrelson has some of the best lines in the movie as an arrogant hypnotist. Having both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as supporting actors really doesn’t hurt. (Too bad about Isla Fisher’s bland character, though.) When it clicks, Now You See Me blends beat-perfect editing with skillful visuals and great audio material. Director Louis Leterrier loves to move his camera around in order to make even the most ordinary moments seem exciting, and his action scenes are impressively choreographed. So what’s the problem? Well, essentially, a lack of restraint: The film often uses blatant CGI trickery in order to fake what are supposed to be real-time stage magic tricks, and in doing so basically blows away its own suspension of incredulity: When the smallest details are so obviously fake, it’s tough to be impressed by the film’s bigger magical set-pieces. Now You See Me’s plot dynamics are also as overblown as to minimize the impact of its last narrative revelations: by the time the final sequence is supposed to blow our minds with an unexpected reversal, an excess of previous twists is bound to leave viewers’ reaction divided between “That makes no sense” and “Oh, whatever”. The caper plot is also very unlikely, but that’s part of the charm of the sub-genre. Despite its flaws, Now You See Me is an enjoyable piece of commercial filmmaking, and I even look forward to the announced sequel.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I wasn’t a big fan of Drive, so the idea of a reunion between star Ryan Gosling and writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn wasn’t the draw that it was for other reviewers. Much to my dismay, it turns out the Only God Forgives (great title, right?) takes the worst aspects of Drive and magnifies them: The plotlessness, the tepid tempo, the garish color scheme, the brutal gore, the expressionless characters… it just goes on and on without much of a point, even though Vithaya Pansringarm is a force of nature as the vengeful policeman righting the wrongs made by Gosling’s family. It’s an unpleasant film in tone, approach and material, made worse by a lack of point and the bare skeleton of a plot stretched over 90 minutes. While the visual polish of the film is undeniable, the directorial flourishes of Only God Forgives can’t save it from pointlessness.