(Video on Demand, February 2014) As a confirmed Science Fiction reader with an extensive knowledge of the genre’s classics (seriously, have you read the book reviews on this web site?), the big-screen adaptation of Ender’s Game after decades of discussion and false hopes (“Jake Lloyd as Ender!”) is a Big Deal. It’s one of the genre’s biggest, most passionately-discussed novels finally brought to a wider audience, with all of the good and bad that this supposes. (I’m going to mention, but not dwell upon, the controversy surrounding novel author Orson Scott Card’s homophobia… except to note ironically that if someone reads Ender’s Game without any clue as to Card’s attitudes, they’re likely to find a sympathetic depiction of a protagonist who may very well be more interested in boys than girls.) The good news are that much of the novel’s plot has been adapted reasonably faithfully. Even the changes feel like a much-needed polish over the novel’s rougher elements: Ender being a more reasonable age, streamlining some of the plot points, toning down the “bugger” slurs, excising the “genius bloggers” angle, and including a redemption for one of the minor antagonists: It makes the novel’s most problematic edges easier to take (and if you don’t think the novel has its share of edges, go re-read it.) Much of the novel’s surprises are included as well (although, yes, the trailer does spoil one of the pivotal images) although telegraphed so hard that readers may find them underwhelming. The use of cutting-edge special effects makes not only for visually pleasing space-fight sequences, but for a convincing Battle Room as well. Gavin Hood’s direction is nicely unobtrusive, while Asa Butterfield makes for a serviceable Ender even as Harrison Ford turns in another fun grumpy-old-man performance. Ender’s Game does feel rushed (the novel takes place over years, making the progression of the protagonist more realistic –the film seems to take place over six months.), doesn’t seem to portray Ender’s isolation and exhaustion as accurately, and takes a few too many shortcuts in an attempt to set up the background information. And while the novel was explicitly written to set up sequel Speaker for the Dead, the film does the same, leading to a truly puzzling conclusion for non-readers that is unlikely to be satisfied by a filmed sequel. For a novel as flawed as the original, the adaptation does its best, and while the result is unlikely to be as much of a classic in the movie realm as the original was in the written, Ender’s Game is a decent-enough Science Fiction film. For years, in speaking with large audience about the reach of written SF compared to filmed SF, I always used Dune as my example: in pitting the best-selling SF novel of a generation compared to a mildly-successful film adaptation, I always found that more people were familiar with the film. Now I’m about to update my example to Ender’s Game: As massively successful as the novel was and as tepidly received as the film is, more people will be familiar with the film than the novel. Even die-hard written-SF fans will have to live with that.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) Writer/Director Uwe Boll may be one of the most reviled filmmakers around, but wow is his latest Assault on Wall Street a fascinating piece of work. Few movies commit as completely to sheer populist outrage, and in selecting Wall Street as a target for a cheap exploitation film, Boll seems far more adept at reading the cultural zeitgeist than in more Hollywoodized products such as Tower Heist. From the get-go, the plot screws have the ring of the time: A protagonist stuck between crippling medical bills and life savings frittered away by financial shenanigans vows vengeance when he loses everything. The titular assault not only succeeds, but goes unpunished and even celebrated in a bit of epilogue narration. Hollywood is never this transgressive, and that makes Assault on Wall Street worth a look even if the film itself never rises above straight-to-video quality levels. There really isn’t much to say about the acting, directing or cinematography when compared to the sheer chutzpah of the script. Taking a break from more fantastical video-game premises suits Boll well: maybe he should consider that as a future career path. Who knows –he may end up doing something more than half-way respectable one of those days.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) The art of the parody movie has eroded so dramatically since the ZAZ heydays of Airplane! and Top Secret! that contemporary standards for those kinds of films are, to put it mildly, abysmal. If it’s not from Friedberg/Seltzer, then it’s already a notch above the worst. If it’s not wall-to-wall covered with sadistic slapstick violence, it’s another rung up. (But I repeat myself) If it tries something slightly funnier than simply re-create scenes from well-known movies then we’re already comfortably above the bottom of the barrel. Sadly, this doesn’t mean that Scary Movie 5 is a good movie; it just means that it’s not as bad as it could have been. I suppose that anyone willingly choosing to watch this film can’t complain if it sucks: The previous installments of the series have ranged from terrible to mediocre, so it’s not as if the series has a reputation to maintain. This time around, Scary Movie 5 rounds up sequences and references to films ranging from 2010 to 2013, curiously choosing the inconsequential Mama as a framework, Paranormal Activity as methodology and delving into both Black Swan and Rise of the Planet of the Apes for extended sequences. (There are smaller, lamer riffs off Inception, The Help, Sinister and Evil Dead, as well as an attempt to spoof 50 Shades of Gray before it even comes out) It occasionally gets a few grins: The opening sequence with Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan works well because Sheen handles most of the comedic heavy lifting and Lohan looks surprisingly good. There’s a beautifully absurd pool-robot-party sequence late in the film that had me giggling like an idiot, and a few gags here and there earn at least a chuckles. Anna Faris and Regina Hall are sorely missing from this fifth entry, but Ashley Tisdale does her best to step up in the lead role, understanding that in this kind of film you don’t have to be good as much as being game to do the silliest things. To its credit, Scary Movie 5 doesn’t just rely on cartoon violence and laugh-free recreations. But it rarely manages to go beyond the cheap laughs and easy targets. It seldom trusts the viewers to figure out the joke, explaining it in far too much detail and killing it in the process. (Tellingly, the best running gag of the film are the split-second glimpses of the antagonist running around in the background.) Scary Movie 5 struggles to make it to 75 minutes before adding a 15-minutes-long credit/outtake/cookies sequence. While the film has enough grins to avoid raising outrage like many of the worst examples of the genre, it’s not good enough to get more than a lukewarm okay-if-you-like-that-kind-of-thing. Frankly, when it comes to dumb Paranormal Activity spoofs, A Haunted House –itself no paragon of comic filmmaking– did it first and did it better.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) There is, admittedly, some interest in seeing Robert de Niro going head-to-head with John Travolta in a no-holds-barred brawl through the Appalachians. But the interest in seeing Killing Season pretty much stops at its concept, because the film turns out to be a far duller and gorier in its execution than it should have been. Never mind the dull prologue, the interminable setup or the pretentious dialogues that drown the rest of the film’s quick-and-violent aims: Killing Season seems flawed from the beginning, from casting to the uneasy mixture of art-house bon mots with grind-house blood. While the violent match-up between John Travolta and Robert de Niro isn’t without interest, it’s hard to shake the feeling that neither of those actors are right for their respective roles. Travolta gets to indulge into fancy facial hair and an even fancier accent, but doesn’t have the gravitas required for playing a Serbian soldier with a murderous grudge. Meanwhile, de Niro seems out of place as a cranky ex-soldier: he’s too old to play the character (especially given the action sequences in the film), and his established persona is far more social/urban than being holed up in a cabin. For two people who, by mid-film, are pretty dead set on killing each other, the film drags on, and on, with an escalating number of scenes where the characters get graphically mauled or tortured. The gore increases the contrast between the exploitation roots of the premise and the talky themes it attempts to explore along the way: while action thrillers can certainly use action explore weightier themes, Killing Season simply seems to stop dead in-between its action beats as it talks and talks about the horrors of war and the way veterans never truly re-integrate peaceful society. Then there’s the weight of the film’s stars: While the film could have been an interesting discovery had it featured quasi-unknowns, it begs for more in featuring Travolta and de Niro. Anyone seeing it on cable TV listings may watch it thinking that it’s a bigger and better film than it is… and disappointment will ensue.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) The prototypical thriller follows a familiar formula, but that’s no excuse to make a film as immediately forgettable as Erased. From the get-go, we are served well-worn elements: the highly-competent hero with a shady past, the woman to protect, the betrayal that upends everything that the hero knows and sends him on the run… In a few minutes, Erased sets its expectations downward and keeps them there. The bland European scenery doesn’t add much, and the progression of the plot to the hero turning the tables against the conspirators isn’t handled with any wit or freshness. It’s not as if formula by itself is bad: there are countless examples of dull premises made interesting by competent execution. But Erased doesn’t have that. Aaron Eckhart (a much better actor than most of the roles he plays) is stuck without much to do except look tough and run fast. (His transformation from super-geek to ex-CIA operative is a bit abrupt, although it’s the kind of stuff allowed on principle in thrillers, otherwise the result would be far less interesting.) In a word, Erased is dull and (ironically) instantly forgettable. It’s not actively bad or unpleasant, but it quickly blurs between what seems to be a countless number of films all telling pretty much the same story.
Scribner, 2009, 256 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 978-1-4165-9473-4
Seven ideas gleaned from reading the Onion’s A.V. Club Inventory
- The web’s lowest-common-denominator excuse for content has finally crossed over to the paper world. Oh, I jest, but only barely: For one thing, books of lists have a long pedigree (From David Wallechinsky’s The Book of Lists series to David Letterman’s books of Top Ten Lists). For another, while Buzzfeed.com has recently perfected the idea of using lists as cheap ways to grab viewer eyeballs on the web to a science, the folks at The A.V. Club have been at it for years, delivering weekly lists of pop-culture trivia. Inventory is a collection of their best lists, along with some original material all wrapped up in pleasant page design.
- Pop culture is hopelessly tribal: Since The A.V. Club is entirely dedicated to pop-culture, expect the lists in Inventory to focus on movies, TV, music or (more rarely) books or video games. Of course, since the lists delve deep into minutiae, their interest is likely to be proportional to your own knowledge of the area. I’m generally knowledgeable regarding movies, a bit less so regarding books or video games, and sort-of-lost in TV and music (it’s a vast universe, and one can’t be expected to know everything) and my interest in the lists was generally proportional to my expertise in the area. Some of the music stuff was dreary and pointless enough to make me skip to the next list; other lists about movies, video games or books felt far more interesting. Inventory is a buffet; take what you want.
- At their dullest, lists are wastes of meaningless trivia: Especially if you have no perceptible interest in the central focal point of the list. “Songs about taking the bus?” Meh. “Songs under 3 minutes.” Really? I don’t need a list of movies about specific things when I can just go get one from IMDB.com
- At their best, lists are a decent way to chunk a larger thesis: Beyond trivia, well-conceived lists become something else: Some of the most remarkable material in Inventory end up building an argument through an accumulation of examples, or a categorization of the same. “Approaches to DVD commentary” isn’t a list as much as a systematic breakdown of how directors approach their DVD commentaries. “Videogames that outraged a nation” paints a capsule history of how videogames pushed the envelope throughout their history. And “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” practically codifies a trope that illuminates a certain kind of self-indulgent filmmaking. All a far more satisfying than listing songs about public transit.
- Talking about Pop Culture is a waste of time… unless you enjoy it: Reading Inventory, it’s hard to avoid the ghastly realization that the book is essentially useless. That lists of trivia are useless. That pop-culture itself is useless. Why, then, does it compel us so much? Perhaps because, as the very name implies, that pop-culture is the glue that binds us to our own self-chosen subcultures. Discussing shared interest is fun, not for the things themselves but for the sentiment of belonging to a group with someone else. Inventory is clearly meant for the cyber-fluent quasi-hipster: The “Heaven/Hell” bits clearly identify the audience as young(ish), urban, progressive and multi-media literate –although classifying Coke as Heaven and Pepsi as Hell is a good way to get on my list of pretentious posers. In keeping with the “Inventory is a buffet” thesis, the most interesting pieces of the book are those that most closely align with our own projected persona.
- Parents of toddlers trying to get back into reading could do worse than beginning with a book of lists: Let’s face it: toddlers require less attention than infants, but they don’t like to be ignored for more than a few minutes. A book of list, easily digestible in chunks of 2-3 minutes, is ideal for reading in such circumstances: Even trivial interruptions don’t feel as annoying when they happen on the eighth item of a meaningless list. Plus you can hand over the bookmark for the toddler to play with and not feel too concerned about losing one’s place in the book.
- There’s not need to go all the way to a top-10 when you’ve said enough.
(First-through-fiftieth viewings, Toddler-watching, In French, On Blu-Ray, February 2014) How strange is it that I still hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs until now. Or have I? The problem with a long-lived pop-culture reference such as this one is how I may have watched it a dozen times during childhood and forgotten all about it. I’m certainly catching up, though, because watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a toddler means watching it on a continuous loop, skipping over the credits, the legendarily scary forest sequence, the witch scenes and the violent end climax. What’s left, though, is more than enough: fantastic animal animation sequences dense in detail and charm; toe-tapping musical numbers (“Whistle While You Work” and “Heigh-Ho” are classics, of course, but I like “Bluddle-uddle-um-dum” and “The Silly Song” a lot.) While my daughter is busy singing and dancing, I’m left to reflect upon how, even by 1937, Walt Disney had hit upon the magic formula that would inform animated features all the way to 2014 and beyond: The use of animation to portray things impossible to shoot in real life (in this case, most notably, the dozen of animals in intricate gags), the necessity of strong showcase sequences, the blend of animation and song, the prototype of the Disney heroine… it’s all there, predating everything we think is modern. As a result, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs still feels incredibly modern, especially within its standout sequences: I defy any modern CGI creation to do better than the sequence in which Snow White and the animals clean up house. When my daughter goes to sleep, it’s time to watch the astonishingly expressionist forest sequence and be amazed at the fact that it’s in a kid’s movie. The one thing that doesn’t quite work, and may reveal much about the fragile production of this first Disney feature film, is the rushed ending, dispensing with about five more minutes of animation through a quick narration of on-screen text: the kind of shortcut that no filmmaker in their right minds would now attempt without self-consciousness. Still, even without a few flaws, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains an impressive film –no wonder it remains a crown jewel of Disney studios even nearly eighty years later.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) I had low expectations for this low-budget romantic comedy, which came out of nowhere with a bland premise, no-name leads and a featured performance by Rob Schneider. Somehow, though, You May Not Kiss the Bride overcomes most of its shortcomings to deliver an entertaining-enough blend of sympathetic protagonists, gorgeous Hawaiian cinematography and effective screenwriting. Here, a Chicagoan photographer is manipulated into fake-marrying a mob daughter to ensure her citizenship. A honeymoon is arranged for the purpose of misleading government authorities, but our protagonist has been warned that he may definitely not kiss or otherwise touch the bride on promises of painful death. Naturally, things don’t quite go according to plan. There isn’t much more to the film than a few performances. Dave Annable and Katharine McPhee make for an appealing lead couple, while Tia Carrere has a welcome supporting role, Mena Suvari repeatedly mugs for laughs and Rob Schneider proves to be far less annoying than expected. Vinnie Jones shows up for a typical turn as the film’s designated heavy, but this isn’t a film that lives on the strengths of its antagonists. While You May Not Kiss the Bride isn’t particularly ambitious (and kind of fumbles its landing by stretching it out), writer/director Rob Hedden should be happy: his film is good enough to make its target audience happy, and may even qualify as a pleasant late-night-cable discovery.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) For decades, the horror genre has thrived on genre ambiguity: Are there truly supernatural horrors out there, or is it all taking place in the person’ mind? Now here we have a science-fictional example of that tension between fantasy and reality, as a trio of journalists descend upon a small town to assess the craziness of a man who has posted a classified ad asking for a time-travel companion. True to its low-budget mumblecore inspirations, Safety Not Guaranteed is a low-energy affair, meandering and contemplative as a young female intern befriends an eccentric man convinced that he’s about to travel back in time. Is he insane? The film’s conclusion settles the question definitively, but it’s the journey that matters more than the answer. Safety Not Guaranteed‘s biggest asset is the unconventional charm of Aubrey Plaza as a disaffected young cynic: Her performance more than overshadows Mark Duplass as the would-be time-traveler. Otherwise, it’s all low-key until the end, with half-hearted attempts at a thriller not really registering against the off-beat romance at the heart of the script. The conclusion, as obvious as it may be, comes as a bit of a disappointment. Still, Safety Not Guaranteed remains a quirky film, and one that goes by easily.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) A quick look through my archives will show that I spent much of 1998-2003 watching an astonishing number of Chinese-language movies from the Hong Kong film industry. (It helped that a local TV station was broadcasting them on a weekly basis and that video stores were there to catch up on the classics.) Given this, I’m reasonably sure that I’ve seen most of the major Chinese action movies made between 1990 and 2005. But that’s just a sliver of what’s available out there as the prototypical “kung-fu movie”, and Films of Fury: The Kung Fu Movie Movie (written by Ric Meyers, based on his book of the same name) is there to explain how kung-fu movies developed as a genre, and where they are now. After pointing out that the genre has its origins as much in dance than in action, Films of Fury gives an overview of its development, from the often-ludicrous early examples to the emergence of Bruce Lee, the golden-age of the eighties-and-nineties, the emergence of stars such as Jackie Chan, John Woo and Jet Li, and the Hollywoodization of the form toward the turn of the millennium. The film’s definition of a kung-fu movie is reassuringly expansive: not only does gun-fu gets its own section, but the film points out that the first inroads of kung-fu movies in western cinema were made in early James Bond movies. Films of Fury avoids talking-head syndrome by featuring narrated animated segments in-between tons and tons of archival footage. The effect is much like hanging out with an enthusiastic video-store clerk for an hour and a half. While the animation style grated on my nerves, the collection of archival footage, sometimes milliseconds long, is astonishing: It seems as if every major kung-fu film is featured on-screen at least once, along with several not-so-major ones. Films of Fury answered my perennial question as to why kung-fu movies disappeared from the big screen after such a strong presence around 2000 (answer; economic downturn, increased post-takeover restrictions on the Hong-Kong film industry by the Chinese government, lack of charismatic stars) while providing reassurance that at least I managed to catch or purchase some recent masterpieces (Kung-Fu Hustle, Red Cliff) and suggesting a few titles that I missed (SPL, Warlords). It amounts to a quick introduction and refresher on a fun genre, and a must-see for anyone interested in a kung-fu movie movie.
(On DVD, February 2014) If you’re going to subvert the expectations of a coming-of-age college comedy, it’s not a bad idea to follow in the iconoclastic traces of screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Swigoff as they take on the mystique of fine-arts education in Art School Confidential. Max Minghella stars as an idealistic artist trying to thrive during his first year at a not-so-prestigious specialized college, alongside flawed teachers played by such notables as Jon Malkovich and Angelica Huston. While the film flirts with convention (fresh in the big city, our hero discovers girls, makes friends, has academic reversals of fortune and uncovers unsavory truths about teachers), it gleefully plays with them in a second half that leads up to a darkly cynical ending. As a portrait of the strange sub-culture of art school, the film earns its laughs. It’s later on that the film become less and less satisfying, as the various threads are either tied up perfunctorily, or not at all. (Witness one of the early scenes, showing various students by how they arrive at school –rather than introduce characters, it just presents people we never see again.) The details don’t add up to much of a story despite the subversion of expectations. At least Art School Confidential offers a few chuckles, and that’s already not too bad.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) I’m not sure if there’s something wrong when a movie has me daydreaming furiously… about things that it doesn’t do. Low-budget Canadian production You Are Here is a big grab-bag of philosophical ideas thrown haphazardly on the screen in what approximates a science-fiction premise but ultimately isn’t much more than random stuff strung together. Hence my hesitation: While it’s fun to see John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment presented on-screen, while You Are Here’s writer/director Daniel Cockburn (better known as a conceptual artist) occasionally plays with clever ideas, unorthodox presentation format or compelling vignettes, it doesn’t add up to anything more than a collection of things, not a satisfying coherent narrative. So it is that I found myself drifting away from the movie, more interested in what it could have done with the same ideas had it been more disciplined, -heck- had it even been interested in delivering a story rather that bite-sized vignettes. I really wanted to like this film better than it did, but there is something about its execution that doesn’t work.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Three decades after the beginning of the AIDS crisis, twenty years after the obvious tears of Philadelphia, we’re not talking about the disease the way we used to, even in historical retrospectives. Dallas Buyers Club may go back to 1986, but it does so with the knowledge that AIDS has, in some ways, become a treatable chronic disease. Rather than focus on the inevitable death sequence (although we do get that), it’s a film that dare to blend all-American entrepreneurial spirit, antiestablishment smuggling and expert-defying hunches into a fight-back story against AIDS. Anchoring the film is Matthew McConaughey’s astonishing physical transformation into a gaunt but indomitable figure, as his radical post-Lincoln Lawyer career renaissance had led him to a pivotal dramatic role (and modified audience expectations accordingly). Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner turn in serviceable supporting roles, but this is really McConaughey’s movie. Skillfully directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club offers a look at the early AIDS era that is both unflinching and more than occasionally entertaining as we see the protagonist defy the medical establishment’s glum predictions to provide a better life for other afflicted people. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that keeps the preaching to a minimum –as should be, considering how attitudes have changed.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) Perhaps the most interesting thing about dictators is how they represent a case study in what happens with humans given almost-unlimited power. So it is that The Devil’s Double imagines a fanciful story about an ordinary man coerced into becoming Uday Hussein’s doppelganger. Along the way, he discovers the insanity of the man, tries to escape and take revenge for what he has seen. Dominic Cooper doubly stars as both Uday and his double, relying on basic but effective acting tricks so that there is never a moment’s hesitation in knowing who we’re dealing with. The Devil’s Double is never as interesting as when it becomes an excuse to dramatize the life of excess in which Uday Hussein lived: fast cars, faster women, unchecked power and blatant sadism all abound here. What’s less compelling is the by-the-numbers nature of the story, which adheres faithfully to the good-old templates for innocents brought near sources of raw power –it does feel a lot like a gangster film. Also rather less than interesting is the film’s raw violence, which often crosses far beyond the necessary to indulge into sheer gore. Director Lee Tamahori keeps things moving briskly, and gets a great performance from Cooper… but the end result does feel too conventional. Worse yet: The Devil’s Double is based on a book that pretends to be a true story, but investigations have revealed no evidence that this ever happened. At least we get a passable thriller out of the fanciful story.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) While Killing Them Softly has the admirable ambition of using a crime story to tackle much-bigger social and economic themes, it looks as if, along the way, it has forgotten to entertain viewers on a minute-to-minute basis. Adapted from a seventies crime novel but updated to be set in the middle of fall 2008’s presidential/economic crisis, it’s a film that attempts to make parallels between low-level mob desperation and wider social problems. As such, it’s got a lot more ambition than most other crime thrillers out there. It all culminates into a tough but compelling final scene, in which America is unmasked as a business far more than a community, and in which getting paid is the ultimate arbitrator of fairness. Stylistically, Killing Them Softly has a few strong moments, perhaps the most being a slow-motion bullet execution. Alas; it’s so kinetically entertaining as to be atonal with the rest of the film, which takes forever to makes simple points and delights into long extended conversations in-between bursts of violence. Still, Brad Pitt is pretty good as a mob enforcer trying to keep his hands clean (it’s another reminder that he can act, and is willing to do so in low-budgeted features once in a while), while James Gandolfini has a one-scene role as a hit-man made ineffective by his own indulgences. Richard Jenkins also has an intriguing role as a corporate-minded mob middle-man in-between men of violence. Otherwise, though, Killing Them Softly‘s tepid rhythm kills most of its interest: Despite writer/director Andrew Dominik’s skills and lofty intent, the film feels too dull to benefit from its qualities.