(Video on Demand, December 2013) The original Red dared to combine aging action stars with quirky comedy and strong action sequences to deliver a film that wasn’t entirely successful, but remained distinctive enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. This sequel is slightly improved by a better understanding of how to combine humor with action, and it can dispense with the tedious work of introducing its main characters. Bruce Willis plays his familiar world-weary tough-guy role, quipping when he’s not exasperated at being thrown once again out of retirement. Among the returning cast, Helen Mirren is as much fun as ever as a top assassin, while John Malkovich is a bit less crazy (but more sympathetic) this time around, even as Mary Louise Parker furthers her transition from adrenaline junkie to rookie operative. There’s a fascinating “throwback to the cold war era” atmosphere as the action goes well beyond the borders of the United States and to Europe, with Anthony Hopkins bringing new laughs as a crazed weapons designer and Catherine Zeta Jones earning a few chuckles of her own as a once-fatale assassin. While the CGI works gets a bit tiresome by the end of the final chase sequence, most of the other action scenes are good enough. Red 2 doesn’t work on a particularly high level, but it’s adequate and in some ways moves past the whole “retired action heroes” shtick into a post-Cold War plot that seems to grow organically out of the characters’ age. It works just fine as an unassuming action film, and even a little better as a sequel.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) There’s little in We’re the Millers to suggest that it’s more than a middle-of-the-road Hollywood family comedy, but sociologists and policy wonks may be fascinated to note that public acceptance of soft drugs is now high enough that a mainstream Hollywood comedy can feature protagonists smuggling tons of marijuana into the United States without raising much of an eyebrow. It helps a lot that the film is both broad and amiable enough to soften the blow: Our hero-dealer (Jason Sudeikis, making a career out of playing lovable pushers and likable perverts) is nowhere as bad as the other dealers in the story, and at its core this is a film about misfits building a family together, which pretty much fits Middle-America’s core values. Not that this is a PG-rated film by any stretch of the imagination: it earns its R rating through copious drug references, sexual content, comic violence and pervasive profanity. However, We’re the Miller seems almost innocuous compared to some of its gross-out R-rated comic brethrens of a decade ago: it’s never mean-spirited, keeps its wilder references implied rather than demonstrated (for instance, while the entire plot is drug-based, you never see anyone doing drugs) and eventually builds toward the kind of conclusion that everyone can cheer for. The jokes are numerous enough that some will stick even when others won’t, earning enough chuckles to make the film a success for nearly everyone. While We’re the Millers may not be as hilarious as it could have been, and suffers from Jennifer Aniston’s bland screen persona (she earns a laugh when revealed as a stripper, but it’s a laugh at her expense –many other actresses could have done quite a bit better in this role), it’s good enough to keep audiences satisfied, and that’s in keeping with the film’s place as a big Hollywood comedy.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) It takes a long while for Elite Squad 2 to get going, but when it does it almost entirely upends the certitudes of its predecessor. 2007’s Elite Squad was a Brazilian action film that took a hard look at the war between favelas drug dealers and the quasi-military police forces fighting them. After seeing the first film’s brutal display of violence and retribution, anyone could have been forgiven for coming to the conclusion that extreme violence is the appropriate response to impose law and order in violent slums, no matter the price paid in dehumanization. But writer/director José Padilha is willing to push his vision further. As Elite Squad 2 begins, our returning narrator, once again played by Wagner Moura, is clearly against those “left-leaning intellectuals and potheads” that are threatening his work in cleaning up the slums. But the film progressively shifts as the drug dealers are replaced by corrupt policemen working alongside equally-corrupt politicians. Soon enough, the protagonist finds himself fighting “The System” of protective rackets and excess taxation imposed by the very same people who once got rid of the street dealers. By the end of the film, he’s forced to make allies with the same left-wing intellectuals he once despised, in an attempt, perhaps ineffective, to fight against his new enemies. While Elite Squad 2 may be a bit too light on the action and a bit too heavy on the drama (there’s little focus to the script for foreign audiences, as it seems more willing to settle scores within Brazil), it’s certainly admirable for the way it graphically describes a complex system of corruption, shifts allegiances and even unceremoniously kills off a recurring character. When corruption comes from within, there are no easy answers, and even fewer excuses for a shoot-‘em-up climax.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp made a splash in 2009 with his debut feature District 9, an exceptional blend of kinetic thrills and thematic wit. Elysium may not benefit from the same element of surprise, but it certainly operates in the same vein: Drawing a clear line between impoverished Earth and privileged space station Elysium, the film tackles social issues in an explicit SF setting with gritty aesthetics and impressive action sequences. Matt Damon is quite credible as a lower-class working man who is forced to become a hero through desperate circumstances while Jodie Foster is perfectly ice-cold as the orbital protector, but it’s Sharlto Copley who steals scenes as a crazed mercenary. The film’s other unassailable highlight are the action sequences, shot a bit too close, but with a documentary-style dynamism that works pretty well. In-between clever visual design and various bits of post-cyberpunk plotting, there’s enough here to keep true Science Fiction fans happy. Unfortunately, Elysium has enough small problems that it seems somewhat less than solid as a whole. The intention to discuss issues of class, wealth and privilege is laudable (there’s even a historical reference to the mercenary class taking over the rich elites when the barbarians come knocking), but it’s ham-fisted and riddled with inexplicable bits of world building. Never mind the open-sky design of Elysium or the software-based plot to overthrow the station’s social order: the lack of a shown middle-class to keep the poor in line is historically strange (it can’t be explained solely by robotics), and it would have been nice to see a bit more nuance beyond the Manichean Earth-is-poor-Elysium-is-rich world-building. The ending makes little logistical sense, and even less political sense –it med-beds are so effective, wouldn’t it be an effective instrument of social control to install them downside? The problem with Elysium may not be that it’s as nonsensical as most Hollywood SF blockbusters, but that it’s so thematically and visually ambitious that it invites greater scrutiny, and that its world-building isn’t able to sustain more than surface-level contemplation. (As an aside, I expect that as Hollywood Science-Fiction gets better and smarter -pushed along by, yes, people such as Blomkamp and movies such as Elysium-, the contrast between its stated sophistication and brute-force Hollywood-style plotting will be more and more apparent.) Elysium is, all things considered, pretty good at what it tries to do. But it’s missing the extra little bit of credibility that would have vaulted it from merely good to potentially great.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Historically, zombie films were popular because they allowed filmmakers to do big horror on a small budget: Find yourself a secluded location, a few shambling extras and you had yourself a movie. Now, thanks to the current craze for all thing zombies, a studio can end up spending nearly 200 million dollars to produce a large-scale globe-spanning zombie thriller. With this budget comes the freedom to do things that haven’t been seen over and over again: a wide-screen takeover of an American downtown; a wider-screen zombie fighting sequence set in a middle-eastern city, and zombies taking over an airplane. Add to that a rapid opening and two unsettling visual motifs (raining zombies, and people being thrown to the ground by a CGI zombie jumping from the left edge of the screen) and the result is a zombie film that warrants viewing despite the genre’s overexposure. The quasi-legendary production problem encountered by the film (including star Brad Pitt reportedly not speaking with director Marc Foster and a third act that was completely re-written as the film was shooting, leading to the cutting of an entire large-scale action sequence) are still visible in the more restrained third act, but the result hangs together relatively well, even despite a spectacularly dumb “vaccine” plot running throughout. Brad Pitt is fine as the hero jack-of-all-trades; he escapes unscathed from the film’s more serious issues. World War Z (which, perhaps thankfully, has little to do with Max Brooks’s epochal source novel) is best seen as a collection of four big set-pieces rather than a coherent whole. While one may regret the film’s wasted opportunities to tie those exceptional action sequences to more serious geopolitical themes, as was the case with the original novel, World War Z still manages to fulfill the most basic expectations of viewers, and should be hailed for that. While we all wait for a tenth-anniversary Blu-Ray edition that will unlock the deleted sequences and detail the film’s production problems, unsatisfied viewers will probably want to go read Brooks’ novel for more context and substance.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) Either I’m reaching terminal boredom with the zombie genre or my expectations ran too high for this unusual take on the zombie mythos: Warm Bodies has exceptional qualities, and yet I found myself bored through most of its duration. On the positive side, Warm Bodies attempts something new(ish) with the zombie genre: Setting up a romance between a zombie guy and a human girl. Making Johnny Undead sympathetic, of course, requires two complementary strategies: Making our hero more human than zombie, for once, and setting up something-worse-than-regular-zombies for another. Once you figure out the course of Warm Bodies, though, there isn’t much left to watch: This Romeo-and-Juliet adaptation goes to the expected places, and while it does so with a certain amount of wit, the shambling walk to the next plot point feels overly long. At least Nichola Hoult is fine as the narrating zombie protagonist, and director Jonathan Levine does the most with his material. Montréal-area viewers will delight to see a film explicitly set in the city: not only featuring Mirabel airport and the Olympic Stadium, but showcasing a few long-shots of the city as seen from Mont-Royal. I suspect that my mind may have wandered during Warm Bodies, and that it should work a little better for most. It remains another quirky entry in the zombie canon, one that shows better than most the inevitable domestication of even our starkest fears.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) Luc Besson’s work over the past dozen years has been frustratingly uneven, so even a run-of-the-mill action comedy can seem like good news. Co-written and directed by Besson, The Family is about an American mob family being relocalized in deep France and dealing with the local elements before facing down retribution from their past. Featuring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones for instant characterization (neither of the three in any way push beyond their usual screen persona, although with De Niro we’re used to the parody aspect), The Family moves along quickly and without a fuss, its comedy occasionally interrupted with a few action sequences. On paper, it shouldn’t work all that well: The paper-thin justification for the premise is weak, the American characters are borderline sociopaths and the third act hinges on a coincidence so massive that the film spends a solid three minutes establishing it. That it does work is a testimony to the talent of the actors, the skill of the director and the unassuming lack of pretension for the entire film. It ends a bit abruptly and leaves many subplots dangling, but The Family seems like a return to form for Besson: Not only is he directing after repeatedly announcing his retirement, but many of his most unpleasant writing tics seem to have been swept under the rug for once. The result is good enough for a few dark laughs.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) While it’s refreshing to see a comedy avoid the usual formula for the genre, Admission risks audience sympathies by doing its own off-beat thing. The unusual choices made by the script and director Paul Weitz (who’s done quite a bit better in the past) may be explained by it being an adaptation of a novel, but once it becomes clear that Admission is not going to play by the usual rules of film comedy, much of the film becomes predictable and so is the resignation that it will withhold a complete release. Still, there is a lot to like here: the look at competitive college admission procedures may feel odd to this Canadian viewer, but it’s interesting, and the quasi-satiric look at academia is good for a few laughs. As leads, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are at their usual most charming selves, with a remarkable supporting turn by Lily Tomlin. It’s amiable enough, and the film does try hard to be something more than a generic romantic comedy. Still, there’s a sense of missed opportunities, of watered-down comedy and intentional misdirection here that makes it hard to wholeheartedly endorse. Admission will certainly do as a good-enough film, but there are certainly funnier, more heartfelt choices out there.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) I am unapologetic about my enthusiastic love for this series ever since the first 2001 installment: I’m not much of a car guy, but I love the blend of action, machines, and humor that the series offers. Fast Five was a notable pivot in that it took the series away from strict street-racing action (no more girl-on-girl kissing!) towards globe-trotting heists and adventure, with considerable broadening of the franchise’s appeal. Now Furious Six capitalizes on this shifting dynamic, and takes audiences to Europe in the search for bigger and better action scenes. The highlight is a highway sequence that pits muscle cars against a tank, leading to a climax set on a massive cargo plane rolling down a seemingly endless runway. With “vehicular warfare” (oh yeah), we are far from the Los Angeles street-racing origins of the series and yet not that far, given how the series has adopted “family” as an overarching theme and eventually manages to bring back everything to the humble neighborhood where it all began. Fast and Furious 6 successfully juggles a fairly large ensemble cast, while giving a big-enough spotlight to series superstars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, with able supporting turns by Dwayne Johnson and a spot for newly-resurrected Michelle Rodriguez. The script is more blunt than subtle (the ham-fisted dialogues really bring nothing new to the film) and the direction could be a bit less tightly focused so to let the action scenes breathe, but for existing fans of the series, this is nothing except another successful entry. There are even a few jokes thrown in: The street-racing sequence is introduced by Crystal Method’s circa-2001 “Roll it Up”, while Johnson not only gets at least two jokes referencing his wrestling background (mentioning “The Walls of Jericho” and a final tag-team fighting move with Vin Diesel) but also a few Avengers shout-outs in-between “working for Hulk”, “Captain America” and “Samoan Thor”. By the post-credit end, the film not only straightens out the series timeline to include Tokyo Drift, but introduce a wonderful bit of casting in time for the next installment. It’s going to be a bit of a wait until the next film…
(Video on Demand, December 2013) On paper, it’s clear that The Lone Ranger tries to replicate the surprise success of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy: Same star (Johnny Depp), producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and director (Gore Verbinski), along with two screenwriters (the Elliott/Rossio duo) and the hundred-plus other crew that the movies share. Once again, we go back in time for thrilling adventures, lavish action sequences, more than two hours’ worth of stuff and an off-kilter supporting character played by Johnny Depp that ends up overshadowing the so-called protagonist. It’s very familiar, and it’s partly why The Lone Ranger feels like such a slight disappointment. There is, for one thing, a bit too much of everything: The 149-minutes running time feels more bloated than generous, with numerous side-stories that don’t do anything to further a focused plot. Even the fantastic action scenes, as detail-oriented as they are conceived, can’t escape a certain lassitude past their halfway mark. I can’t help but blame Verbinski for a failure to tighten up the film and even up the tone: The Lone Ranger often loses itself momentarily in side-scenes that don’t bring much, indulges in a far grimmer tone than expected (gee… Eating a heart? Genocide twice?) and the framing device isn’t good for much more than a few unreliable-narrator gags. While Depp does fine as Tonto, his character’s eccentricities seem more studied than fascinating, and by the time his Big Trauma is explained, viewers may be tempted to shrug and motion for the film to move along. This being said, there is something grand and wonderful about truly-big-budget filmmaking: It seems as if every penny has been spent on-screen, with careful period recreations even in the most fleeting scenes, to say nothing of the extravagant craft with which the action sequences have been put together. The two train action sequence that bookend the film are worth seeing for anyone who appreciates the kind of big action beats that only hundred of SFX technicians can deliver. While the film isn’t particularly good, it’s nowhere near a disaster, and it’s sad that Armie Hammer’s career may suffer from the film’s lack of financial success: he’s likable enough in the lead role, and anyone who maintains that this among the year’s worst clearly hasn’t seen enough films yet. The Lone Ranger has plenty of visual delights, even if it could have benefitted from a few judicious trims at the screenplay level.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I may not have gamed seriously in a while, but I’m still sympathetic to the scene, and films such as Indie Game: The Movie are a good reminder that, even as the Gaming industry has grown large enough to create thousand-employees monsters such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, there is still a place for the independent game creator, especially now at a time when digital distribution makes it easier than ever to reach an appreciative public. While the creators of Indie Game have, I’m told, interviewed a large number of independent gaming scene creators and pundits during development, the finished film focuses on four creators: Phil Fish of Fez, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes of Super Meat Boy, and the irreplaceable Jonathan Blow of Braid fame. (Confession: While I have Steam keys for both Super Meat Boy and Braid, Braid is the only one of those games I played before my voluntary hiatus away from the gaming scene began in late 2011.) By focusing on three games (well, really only two, since Jonathan Blow is featured mostly as an accomplished veteran –the others are fighting it out with their development as the documentary is shot), Indie Game is able to tell heartfelt stories of creators struggling with the practical realities of business even as they aim to provide a transcendent experience. Two interviewees openly equate non-development to literal death (as in: “I will kill myself if the game is never released.”), while the financial, emotional and romantic toll of protracted development is starkly shown. While Indie Game eschews overt narration, subtitles provide just enough context to make the film accessible to anyone not steeped in community lore, and the film thankfully provides a third-act moment in which we are reminded that games are still largely about fun. Cleverly put together by Canadian filmmakers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky (with bit of help from their Kickstarter friends), Indie Game is an heartfelt, revelatory and compelling look at a very particular field of human expression in which individuals still put their health, fortune and emotional sanity on the line in order to provide an entertainment experience for other people. The film is perhaps most wonderful when it taps into this vein of creativity and doggedness that make independent game-making so different from more corporate creations. It’s a blend of exotic technical know-how, absolute dedication and straight-up mania. Though I would have wished for broader commentary on the field, the choice to focus on a few creators makes for dramatic viewing. All have interesting things to say (I have rarely found Jonathan Blow less than fascinating on-line: it’s a treat to see him on-camera in a similar mode), and their struggles in bringing those games to release day are worth telling. Fascinated viewers should hit Wikipedia immediately after Indie Game to find out what then happened to the games and creators… so far.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) As an officially-sanctioned history of the first fifty years of the James Bond film franchise, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 is satisfying: Through a mixture of talking heads, narration, archival footage and clips from the movies themselves, the film cobbles together a highlight reel of the franchise’s distinct eras, behind-the-scenes upheavals, cultural impact and passing whims. Its single best asset is in featuring all Bonds (except for Sean Connery, for reasons that quickly become obvious) reflecting upon their tenure as Bond and the reasons behind their exit from the franchise. George Lazenby rebelling from The Establishment? Pierce Brosnan cackling over kite-surfing a tsunami? Entertaining stuff. But this overview of the franchise’s history only skims the surface, and no amount of good words from Bill Clinton himself can fully explore the infighting between the Broccoli family and legal challengers to the Bond franchise, or the various issues faced by the filmmakers in shooting Bond movies. It’s also curiously quick to dispense with entire eras of the Bond franchise, some movies barely earning a mention. (It’s also inevitably flawed in having been released alongside Skyfall, a Bond film that will stand on its own as worthy of further discussion in later retrospectives.) The film isn’t above a bit of mythmaking (I’m not sure that the Fleming novels were as innovative as the narration makes them out to be), and for its entire often-surprising candor, it remains an authorized documentary that doesn’t dare criticize the official version of events. While an entertaining and superbly-edited film, Everything or Nothing is most likely to make viewers do two things, neither of which are entirely bad: First up, make everyone see the Bond films over again. Second: have them look for a more detailed and more objective history of the franchise, if only to more fully explore elements barely mentioned within the confines of a 90-minutes documentary.
(In French, On Cable TV, December 2013) As a French-Canadian Science-fiction fan, shouldn’t I be thrilled to see a French-Canadian Science-fiction movie for once? Well, putting aside the fact that there have been French-Canadian SF movies before (from 1989’s Dans le Ventre du Dragon to 2004’s Dans une Galaxie Près de Chez Vous (and sequel) to 2005’s Saints-Martyrs-des-Damnés to 2008’s Hunting Grounds, among others), I’m reminded of the old cynical observation about getting what you’d wished for: While Mars et Avril is, I think, the first decently-budgeted SF film to tackle a future vision of Montreal with the visual polish you’d expect from a modern SF film, it’s hobbled with a number of idiosyncratic ideas that don’t make sense. It’s deeply weird even by the standards of the genre: whether it’s musicians playing instruments based on body parts, the worst set of teleportation engineering imaginable, musings on whether Mars is real or not, or a climax in which a character may or may not disappear in his own imagination, Mars et Avril benefits and suffers writer/director Martin Villeneuve’s strong artistic passions. It frequently looks great, to the point where it’s hard to believe it was made with a budget barely above two million dollars, but it also exists in a dreamlike universe where it’s difficult to reconcile the film with reality as we know it. From a boring hard-SF perspective, Mars et Avril is a string of nonsense loosely connected together, with dumb plot points, a non-cohesive vision of the future and a story that may best be described as fantastical rather than well-plotted. On the other hand, I’m having a hard time working up more than a slight annoyance at the result. Noted pop-philosopher Jacques Languirand is an inspired choice as the melancholic protagonist of the film, while there’s some good work by Paul Ahmarani and Robert Lepage in supporting roles. The star, though, remains Martin Villeneuve: while I may not care for the haziness of his vision, he has managed to do what has eluded many French-Canadian filmmakers so far: he has put it up on-screen in all of its flawed glory, and dared everyone else to do as well as he did. If nothing else, this makes Mars et Avril a landmark of sorts. I just wish the next attempt at a big bold French-Canadian SF film will take place into something more closely approximating our own reality.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) Fast cars and big guns are near-essential ingredients of B-grade action films, and if nothing else, The Last Stand doesn’t try to camouflage its high-concept plot devices. There’s a crazed Mexican druglord high-tailing it to Mexico with a fast car, and there are plucky heroes who literally stand in his way. The entire film leads to its final confrontation, and it’s the kind of structure that’s ideally suited to a low-budget action film. The Last Stand is most notable for being Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role in a decade (you may recall him as acting as California’s governor during that time), and it’s an adequate return to form for him: his role is generally (despite the usual action-hero heroics) age-appropriate, and while he stars, he doesn’t hog all of the spotlight. Much of the film is forgettable, though: the night-time action scenes blur together, while the engaging cornfield climax leads to an overlong bridge fistfight. While The Last Stand remains well-directed enough (by acclaimed South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon in his American debut) to hover comfortably above most direct-to-video titles, it’s not special enough to warrant more than an evening’s easy entertainment. It would have been nice to see something a bit more ambitious.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-budget serial-killer thriller, and while The Call doesn’t quite escape the confines of its chosen genre, it does have one or two high-concept moments that make its first hour worthwhile. The chosen focus on 911 responders is novel, and the way the script uses the limits of the caller/responder link to set up a lengthy car chase sequence is the kind of stuff fit to rejoice even the most jaded thriller fan. Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin are both initially sympathetic as (respectively) the responder and kidnapped caller, while director Brad Anderson seems to be able to wring the most out of his low production budget. The highlight of The Call has to be the titular call, a lengthy sequence in the middle of the film where the kidnapped victim, stuck in the trunk of a car, dials 911 and tries to piece together clues as to where she is, where she is headed and who her kidnapper may be. It’s a sequence with twists and turns and clever little moment and sadly it ends well before the film does. Inevitably (for so are Hollywood thriller written), the character played by the lead actress has to inject herself in the action, go investigate on the ground, find clues that trained investigators have missed, go into a lair without calling for backup, and execute vigilante justice with a heavy side-order of sadism. The Call would be a far better film without its trite and unpleasant last act –too bad that the screenwriter couldn’t recognize that the script’s best assets would be undermined by a conventional end sequence. But so it goes with the Hollywood theory of converging premises: No matter how original the set-up, it usually ends up with a female hero facing down a serial killer in a basement.