The Bag Man (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Bag Man</strong> (2014)

(Video on Demand, April 2014) One of the strangest aspects of the shift from theaters of video on-demand for smaller movies is that from time to time, some films seem to punch well above their weight when it comes to actors. Here, for instance, we’ve got John Cusack as a remorseful hitman playing off Robert de Niro as a mob boss, with quick roles for Crispin Glover and Dominic Purcell (either of whom could and have carried smaller films on their own). And yet this is a restrained thriller, most of the action being concentrated in one night at an isolated motel. Even the casting may not work entirely at the film’s advantage: While Cusack is up to his usual good-guy role, he is getting a bit old for the young-guy-learns-better arc he usually gets. Meanwhile, de Niro seems once again to coast on a familiar performance (although one that may evoke more Dustin Hoffman than classic de Niro). Rebecca Da Costa seems lost in a role that requires too much of her at this stage in her career (the horrible costume/makeup that opens her performance does her no favours either) and seeing an eccentric performer such as Crispin Glover in such a small role seems like a bit of a waste. The rest of the film is just twisted enough to be interesting, but let’s not pretend that this anything more than a standard B-grade thriller voluntarily set upon a small scale. It’s reasonably enjoyable as such (call it perfect slow-evening fodder when you’ve seen everything else) but the too-big names on the marquee may suggest something more than it is.

Di Renjie: Tong tian di guo [Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame] (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Di Renjie: Tong tian di guo</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame</strong>] (2010)

(On Cable TV, April 2014) One of the best things about the globalization of mass entertainment is the opportunity to see Hollywood-style blockbuster epics coming from very different places. So that’s how we end up with Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame, a reinterpretation of a brilliant historical Sherlock Holmes-like investigator with the trapping of a modern action/adventure tent-pole event. In this case, we find ourselves in seventh-century China, as a massive Budha statue is about to be unveiled to commemorate the coronation of an empress. When sudden combustion strikes important people, it’s up to disgraced detective Dee to track the clues leading all the way to an attempted coup. This being a made-in-China-for-Chinese-audiences affair, Mystery of the Phantom Flame has a welcome flavor for Western audiences, but the structure of the film will be familiar enough to transcend all barriers: Detective Dee, played by Any Lau, is pleasingly brilliant, his back-story makes for a complex figure, and the action sequences don’t need any translation. Sure, the mysticism-tinged plot doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense at times. But Hark Tsui’s direction is slick and polished, and the film does have the heft of a big-budget spectacular. Having a look at it portends a future in which not all blockbusters will be American.

Paranoia (2013)

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

(On Cable TV, April 2014) There is very little that new, inspiring or even interesting about Paranoia, a completely average thriller. One young man, stuck between warring superiors in a corporate espionage thriller: we’ve seen nearly all of the bits and pieces in other better movies before, and director Robert Luketic can’t do much to save the end result from terminal mediocrity. Liam Hemsworth is blander than bland as the pretty-face protagonist, but the surprise here is to see Gary Oldman being so… dull even as a shaved-head Harrison Ford gets to chew some scenery as one of the two villains. For a thriller, Paranoia is almost refreshingly devoid of violence: There’s some running around and one solid car-on-pedestrian hit, but the rest of the film plays out in very civilized threats of economic turmoil and career setbacks. What is mildly interesting about the film is the contemporary wrapping around the plot: The hero makes an inspiring opening speech about his generation being robbed of a future by the financial downturn (hey, what about the rest of the 99%, all ages included?), has money problems due to medical costs for his ailing father, and spends much of the movie blathering about smart-phone technology. All are signs of the time, often more fascinating in bad-to-average movies than in innovative ones. Still, that doesn’t’ necessarily make Paranoia any more than a passable, calmer-than-usual thriller fit to entertain only if there are no other more compelling alternatives.

Seeking Justice (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Seeking Justice</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, April 2014) The usual trade-off when watching mediocre movies starring Nicolas Cage is that however dull the film can be, at least Cage will be there to indulge into one of his usual bout of theatrical overacting. Sadly, we get neither a good film nor a typically unhinged Cage in Seeking Justice, with results that feel far more disappointing that had it featured another lead actor. To be fair, the film offers an intriguing premise: A bookish husband is promised vengeance against the man who assaulted his wife in exchange for an unspecified favour sometime in the future. Six months later, the favour escalates all the way to murder, and our protagonist gets stuck between an eager police force and a mysterious conspiracy. So far so good: Seeking Justice is heavy on mysteries for its first half, and then just as heavy on chases in the second. But what’s missing is Cage’s usual persona: in his quest to play a different character, he seems to forget everything that makes Cage, well, Cage. In another context, it may have been forgivable (see his performance in The Frozen Ground, equally restrained as the thriller around him) but here it just feels like a waste as the rest of the film cries out for some wild acting to go along its preposterous premise. But it isn’t so, hence Seeking Justice ending up as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road thriller, the likes of which are quickly sent to the home video market these days. January Jones continues not to impress here as the protagonist’s wife –she doesn’t get asked for emotional range, and so doesn’t have to deliver. The power of wildness is more obvious with Guy Pearce, who gets to chew slightly more scenery as the shaved-head villain. (One starts to wonder if the fault isn’t to be addressed to director Roger Donaldson: was he screaming “more restraint!” on the set?) Thematically, there’s almost something interesting in the portrait of urban decay as pictured in New Orleans (Cage must feel like a honored guest given the number of films he has anchored there lately.) and four-decades-out-of-date criminal sociology. While Seeking Justice is competently-made enough to avoid most of the pitfalls of bad films, it doesn’t get to do much more than be a serviceable thriller, and that’s too bad.

V/H/S/2 (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">V/H/S/2</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, April 2014) Once again, this anthology horror film defies the odds: I didn’t expect the first V/H/S to be any good (Found-footage anthology? Ugh!) but it was, and I didn’t expect the second one to be better, but it is. It sure sounds as if the directors of this sequel listened to the reviews of the first film, which identified two specific segments as being far more dynamic and interesting than the rest. As a result, a good chunk of V/H/S/2 is played at the same level of frantic manic energy as the best segments of the first film, and the result is a big thrill ride that overcomes the clichéd “And they all die at the end” trope of found-footage films. Even the framing story works a bit better this time around: “Tape 49” features two Private Investigators who get into a lot more trouble than they expected when they’re asked to retrieve a mysterious tape. The setup is identical to the first film, but the two characters are more sympathetic than the prequel’s sociopathic hoodlums, and the end horror fillip is quite a bit more successful. As a bonus, we get hints of a wider conspiracy, setting up future installments should the franchise want to move forward. The first segment, “Phase I Clinical Trials” features an ingenious rationale for the first-person perspective (a man gets an artificial eye, starts seeing ghosts) but the good setup and effective first scares eventually degenerate into big noisy nihilistic nonsense by the end of the segment (a weakness shared by most of the other pieces of the anthology), nullifying somewhat the first promising moments. What’s most to like about the VHS series so far is the way the short-film format allows stylistic explorations of one-note premises that would be impossible to sustain over longer films, and “A Ride in the Park” is a near-perfect example of such, featuring a first-person perspective of a zombie outbreak. While the film doesn’t put us inside the mind of a zombie, it puts us slightly above it, and shows that even stale subgenres can be explored from new perspectives. (Fittingly, it’s a segment co-directed by some of the same people who did The Blair Witch Project.) Compared to its predecessor, V/H/S/2 wisely chooses fewer longer segments (4 rather than 5) and “Safe Haven”, the strongest section of the film, cleverly uses up its time to set up an atmosphere of pure dread as journalists investigate a sinister cult, before unspooling everything in ten solid minutes of pure craziness. Again, the scares don’t cohere into a satisfying conclusion, but the apocalyptic succession of horrors is a high-energy race to the final disturbing images, and directors Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans (the mad mastermind behind “The Raid” series) have much to be proud of. After that, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” feels like a bit of a let-down, even if it uses the conceit of alien abduction for a frantic succession of hopeless chases, bright flashes and loud noises. (No, but seriously: the sound design is excellent in this segment.) Much of V/H/S/2 has the usual problems of found-footage films: poor image quality, headache-inducing direction and they-all-die endings. But the film does well within the confines of the form and manages to create a dreadful atmosphere that escapes slicker productions. It’s a step up from the first film (mostly by being as much fun as it is horrific, and having far more sympathetic protagonists), so much so that I’m definitely interested in seeing an eventual V/H/S/3.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lady and the Tramp</strong> (1955)

(First-through-fiftieth viewings, Toddler-watching, On Blu-Ray, April 2014) We’ve run through The Aristocats so many times in my toddler-dominated house that a dog-centric alternative imposed itself. What better one than Lady and the Tramp? This first wide-screen Disney animated movie still proves timeless once the dogs are on-screen, and while a finger on the skip button proves essential in going past the scary sequence in which Lady gets lost, or much of the thunder-and-lightning final scene, the rest of the film is a smooth viewing experience for any dog-fascinated toddler. The Blu-Ray version has been restored to a contemporary level of visual clarity, and the feature itself has survived just as well. Plot-wise, it’s a bit meandering (the beaver sequence still stands apart as curiously disconnected), but there is a lot of charm and wit to it all. The background story (with a firstborn entering the world) has a charming sweetness to it, and the dog characters are just as likable. Musically, our household can’t help humming “La La Lu”, “Bella Notte” and oh-this-is-when-it’s-from! “The Siamese Cat Song” (It’s quite a bit racist, but it’s catchy and the French dub has the genius-level lyric “Ce qui est à toi est aussi à moi”, playing off on the similarity between “mine and Siamese” in French) The spaghetti sequence is a lead-in to the beautiful Bella Notte sequence. Technically, I was fascinated at the (early) use of wide-screen cinematography, especially keeping low to the ground, focusing on the dogs and not showing the humans more than necessary. It amounts to a film that has admirably weathered the ages, and can be watched by the entire family… over and over again.

The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort

<em class="BookTitle">The Wolf of Wall Street</em> and <em class="BookTitle">Catching the Wolf of Wall Street</em>, Jordan Belfort

Bantam, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 528 pages, $C19.95 tp, ISBN 978-0553384772

Bantam, 2011, 480 pages, $18.00 tp, ISBN 978-0553385441

After watching Martin Scorsese’s hilariously excessive biographical movie The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s tough not to reach for the two books that inspired it all. Legendarily corrupt Wall Street bad-boy Jordan Belfort loves few things more than self-promotion, and it it’s in light that the movie serves as the trailer for the books that seek nothing more than tell us how special Belfort was and continues to be.

And if the preceding paragraph has a bit of a skeptical edge, keep in mind that enjoyment is not a close relative of credulity.

The basics of Belfort’s story are these: He’s a gifted young man who, somewhere in the late eighties, realized that brokers made money out of stock transaction commissions, and that nothing, legally speaking, forced brokers to have their client’s best interest at heart. Once you couple that flash of evil genius with top-notch sales techniques, it’s a relatively easy step to building a company built on selling sub-standard stock to wealthy clients rather than enriching said clients. From there, pump-and-dump schemes are only a short ethical distance away. Profits from the sales accruing to the owner of the firm, you can see how Belfort allegedly made something like forty-nine million dollars on his best year. That, in turn, enabled Belford to indulge in an unchecked succession of drugs (most notably, but not exclusively, qualuudes), prostitutes, lavish decoration and increasingly ludicrous vehicular damages. (damaging cars you can understand, crashing helicopters you can imagine, but losing a yacht is mind-boggling enough.)

But chances are that you’ve seen the movie (a solid box-office performer and a critical favourite) and already know all of this. The point being that if the film is a heightened version of reality, the books aren’t necessarily documentary material. Oh, sure, Belfort has a much harder time in the books than in the film: Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter voluntarily messed with the usual bad-boy-gets-comeuppance narrative to maximize the fun-and-game phase and to gloss over the arrest-and-jail time. Nearly all of Catching the Wolf of Wall Street is spent somewhere inside the judicial system, awaiting trial or experiencing prison. Belfort may have lost his money in both versions of the tale, but the books are quite a bit harsher in pointing out the personal toll of seeing his marriage break up, and feeling his kids grow away from him.

This being said, let’s not minimize the can-you-top-this?! tall-tale quality to both the film and the books. Belfort is a born raconteur, and his life of incredible anecdotes is carefully heightened through engaging narration, carefully chosen details and melodramatic inner monologues. As a Hunter S Thompson fan, I was amused for find a definite Thompsonesque resonance in Belfort’s world-weary omniscient description of drugs and their effects. The books are frequently hilarious and always fascinating, taking us in places where the average middle-class reader will never be able to afford. Hearing Belfort complain about the million-dollars decoration of his former house is… special.

I keep discussing “the books” as if they were one unit, and there’s a reason for that: While the first book is easily better (newer, funnier, fresher) than the second (which does spend a lot of time re-hashing the same life), it’s telling that the film draws inspiration from both, using the more detailed explanations when available. The first book is certainly more entertaining, as it (like the movie) spends very little time detailing the judicial proceedings against Belfort. But the second book uses the structure of a series of interrogations to double back and fill a few holes in Belfort’s life, from his early experiences in business to more ludicrous stories of drug abuse. There is some evidence in the author’s acknowledgements of both books to suggest that Belfort initially wrote a very long narrative that was then re-structured in two separate volumes –the best advice is to read them both back-to-back for the best experience, despite the strong repetitiveness.

But reading even one of the two books raises a really vexing question: Is Belfort truly sorry for defrauding so much money, of is he sorry he got caught? There’s no doubt that Belfort believes himself to be exceptional (in fact, there’s little doubt that, lack of ethics put aside, he is exceptional in remarkable ways), and the overblown quality of his narrative can’t escape a dastardly “Ain’t I a stinker?” twinkle whenever he tells us about his worst moments. Still, some of his excuses in the book feel forced, the kind of things you read in depositions and probation requests and other official documents in which repentance is socially expected. Belfort may truly regret the actions that led him to so much personal turmoil, but the gleeful anecdotes in the books suggest that he wouldn’t change much save for the parts that got him indicted.

As a reader, that leaves us with the mixed feelings of being entertained and repulsed at the same time. Wolves are beautiful but have no place in civilized society, and if Belfort’s books can truly teach us something, it’s a glimpse into the minds of those dangerous high-fliers who think their exceptionalism is an excuse to grab what they can.

Freelancers (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Freelancers</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, April 2012) One nearly every level, Freelancers is the quasi-definition of an average corrupt-cop drama. Teenage hoodlums-turned-cops spend their first few days on the job confronting racist and drug-using veterans, before turning the tables on a spectacularly corrupt ring of insiders. There’s little here that hasn’t been done elsewhere in much more compelling fashion. Still, Freelancers has a slightly different rhythm: it’s talky, generally restrained in its use of loud action sequences (although some of the more corrupt cops seem able to get away with literal murder without too many plot consequences.) and earns a few irony points by pitting Curtis “50 cents” Jackson (a rapper with a somewhat spectacular personal history going from teen-hoodlum to respected artist) against Robert de Niro, who can play corrupt cops while half-asleep and still run circles around his co-stars. (Forrest Whittaker also makes a bit of an impression as a seriously corrupt policeman who somehow still ends up a fairly good cop at times.) Freelancers has the advantage of being decent enough to be worth a look on a lazy evening, but it’s not exactly a classic in the making: Training Day and even far more pedestrian fare such as Brooklyn’s Finest have explored this territory far more satisfactorily before, making this film a bit redundant. For a non-American perspective, the film also seems to be taking place in a far more violent and degenerate alternate universe where police corruption is taken as endemic and false equivalencies between police and criminals are a given –in other words, a throwback to the seventies that feels a bit forced today. Fortunately, there is an audience for such tepid crime dramas as Freelancers: people who, like me, don’t mind yet another cop drama given the right circumstances and are always up to see which self-referential role Robert de Niro will now accept.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues</strong> (2013)

(Video on Demand, April 2014) I remain a bit out of the popular opinion loop when it comes to the original Anchroman: While the film has its moments, it feels as aggressively dumb as its lead characters, and in no way warrant any kind of cult-classic status. But then again, I’ve never been much of a fan of Will Ferrell. So when this sequel doubles-down on nearly everything that made Anchroman, well, Anchorman, it makes sense that any feeling about the first film may be transferred nearly-intact to this sequel. The Good? Well, Anchorman 2‘s comedic carpet-bombing makes it so that it does manage to score a laugh or a chuckle from time to time. It does get better as it gets weirder. The end “newscaster brawl” has a high density of celebrity cameos and sight gags (although the fact that nearly everyone wasn’t there at the same time becomes painfully obvious, plus why not pick Montréal-born Rachelle Lefebvre or Jessica Paré rather than French-from-France Marion Cotillard as the French-Canadian reporter?), and the script manages a few points for taking on the general dumbing-down of news. Still, much like the first film seemed awfully indulgently sexist in its depiction of sexism, Anchorman 2 does seem inordinately pleased in its own stupidity while criticizing the erosion of intellectual standards. Much of the film works better conceptually than on the screen: I suspect that the loose improvisational nature of the film comes from the production, and the lack of a tight script makes it hard to hit and sustain specific plot points. Watching the film can be aggressively annoying at times, since much of the humor seems to be based around awkward screaming and fake panic –it gets old quickly. Ultimately, I suspect that the audience for this film self-selects based on their liking of Ferrell’s comic shtick. I can tolerate it at small doses, and having seen Anchorman 2 I find myself satisfied for the next year or so.