Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Better Luck Tomorrow</strong> (2002)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) My motives were a bit superficial in wanting to watch Better Luck Tomorrow: writer/director Justin Lin went on to direct several installments in the Fast & Furious series, which featured a charismatic character named Han as played by Sung Kang.  I’d heard that Lin’s first film featured the same actor playing a similar (perhaps identical) character and wanted from where both the director and the character came from.  But Better Luck Tomorrow ends up being a somewhat likable high-school crime drama, featuring well-off Asian-American teenagers turning to criminal activities in order to spice up their overachieving lifestyle.  It’s funny and sympathetic up to the point where things turn dark and ugly, but this depiction of characters often glimpsed as stereotypes in other teenager movies feels fresh and interesting.  There are a few laughs, a few cringes and a few moments of condemnation for the characters turning bad.  The slide into serious crime is as shocking as the characters are engaging when they’re merely being bad boys.  Lin’s direction is stylish and engaging (especially considering the limited budget of the film) and the young actors all do good work.  Sung Kang does play a younger “Han” with understated cool, while Parry Shen anchors the film as the protagonist and Karin Anna Cheung plays a love interest with quite a bit more depth than you’d expect.  All in all, Better Luck Tomorrow ends up being a much better experience than simply answering a trivia question about Justin Lin and Sung Kang

12 Years a Slave (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">12 Years a Slave</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) My life circumstances at the moment mean that I rarely get to watch a film from beginning to end, uninterrupted: I often have to watch films in 30-minutes intervals and while that usually annoys me, it proved to be a relief in taking in 12 Years a Slave, as unflinching and dismaying a depiction of slavery in the antebellum American south as anything we’ve seen on-screen –at least since the deliberately more exploitative Django Unchained.  The true story of a black free man kidnapped and pressed into service for more than a decade away from his family, 12 Years a Slave is designed to be infuriating and depressing at once.  Once stuck in the slavery system, our protagonist gets no say over his well-being; in fact, the first thing he understands is that the truth will not set him free, and may serve to kill him.  The second thing we viewers learn is that a system of slavery means that everyone is prisoner of that system; even kind and god-fearing people are beholden to its requirements, making any escape seem remote.  Director Steve McQueen never shies away from the shocking moments, and sometimes even designs his films to confront viewers with the horrors of the situation: witness the agonizing minutes-long hanging shot, or the uninterrupted whipping sequence.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent in the lead role, but the film benefits from strong supporting performances by the likes of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who serves as the audience’s conscience by playing a Canadian.  I tend to expect the worst from movies that play up their social-conscience themes, but 12 Years a Slave shows self-confident filmmaking savvy, and stands out as a fantastic piece of work even with the harsh subject matter.  Don’t miss it, even if you have to take a break from the horror once in a while.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Insidious: Chapter 2</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) The horror genre has a long history of great films leading to so-so sequels, and Insidious 2 is now part of that tradition.  Insidious made a mark partly by being one of the first good American horror movie in a while that wasn’t trying to rely on found-footage tropes, and it heralded a number of similar or better movies in its wake, from Sinister to The Conjuring.  Still, it wasn’t without its flaws, and this sequel seems to dwell at length on those less successful aspects while throwing in a number of old clichés.  Oh, so a cross-dressing serial killer is the big bad guy of the series?  Let me get my fainting salts.  In overall impact, Insidious 2 cranks down the dial from Good to Average with far more conventional thrills and a familiar formula.  (Keep in mind, though, that the titular “Chapter 2” is there for a reason: this is absolutely not a stand-alone sequel, and it is best seen immediately after the first film.)  There are still plenty of things to like –including going back in time to explain goose-bumps from the first film, acknowledging its own absurdity with a well-placed “So that’s what it was all about”, an effective jump-shot explaining what the phantom piano-playing meant, and finding a more-than-adequate younger counterpart for Lin Shaye in Lindsay Seim.  Shaye once again steals the spotlight during her short appearance, while Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do what is expected of them (though Wilson has a harder dual role to manage).  Meanwhile, director James Wan continues to perfect his technique: this follow-up is a bit less blunt in its scares than its predecessor.  By the time the shock-ending title card rolls around, we’ve seen enough to be entertained, but not quite enough to be impressed: Insidious 2 gets credits for being an acceptable follow-up, but it’s far more ordinary that it should have been.

The Monuments Men (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Monuments Men</strong> (2014)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) As much as I like the topic of The Monuments Men, as much as I find its actors likable, as much as I appreciate the attempt to deliver an old-school WW2 drama that eschews action theatrics in favor of more subtle motivations (all the way to “does saving art justify personal sacrifice?”), I don’t think that this film is as good as it could have been.  It’s hard, of course, to condense a real-world story as big as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program into a short entertaining piece of Hollywood cinema, but The Monuments Men often takes shortcuts that ring false, and remains sedate when it should be a bit more energetic.  This is writer/director/star George Clooney’s movie, and so a bit of the blame should go to him: his genial, middle-of-the-road approach to the material ends up feeling unfocused and dull.  The script has no choice than to go to episodic scenes, but many of them simply lead nowhere and don’t build upon each other.  The comedy clashes against the drama rather than support it, and it’s hard to say whether this should have been better as a snappy 90-minutes thriller or as a longer TV miniseries.  The Monuments Men does build some narrative tension late in the proceedings, but much of its first half is one-thing-after-another episodes with stock characters and familiar situations.  But while the film may not best attain its own noble ambitions, there’s something quaintly charming, even comforting about the way it is put together: Big-name movie stars, classical direction, clean cinematography and straightforward plotting.  The film wears its idealistic convictions right where everyone can see them, and makes little attempt to humanize its enemies.  (The best scene even climaxes with a sarcastic “Heil Hitler!”)  And then there are the actors, from Clooney indulging into his familiar old-school movie star charisma, to Matt Damon once again being a good sport (trust me: his French in the film truly is atrocious, but not in ways that can be blamed on Montréal), Bill Murray warping time and space through sheer coolness, and a lengthy list of known names all playing along.  The Monuments Men ends up in that vexing netherworld where it can be both disappointing yet entertaining at the same time, a comfort film that feels a bit too long and disjointed for its own sake.

Insidious (2010)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Insidious</strong> (2010)

(On DVD, October 2014) Having missed Insidious in theaters, then on DVD, then on Cable TV even as its reputation grew as a good example of recent American horror, I found myself playing catch-up late at night, finally finding out for myself was the fuss was about.  As it turns out, Insidious isn’t too bad, but director James Wan’s follow-up The Conjuring is a bit better and thus retroactively colors Insidious‘ impact.  Both movies have similar starting points, with families in new houses being imperilled by demonic forces and semi-professional helpers coming to help them.  But it’s the execution that counts, and while The Conjuring did well with a soft-spoken acceleration of horrors, Insidious is quite a bit blunter in how it marks scares with big musical stings.  Much of the first hour feels conventional, as innocent people (and audiences) are progressively spooked by strange happenings.  But there are hints that something weirder is at play, and by the time the last half-hour moves from haunted house to possessed bodies to astral travel, Insidious becomes interesting in ways that most horror movies third acts usually don’t.  Still, that final half-hour is also in many ways the silliest, as the film’s ambitions run against its budget, and the literalization of some metaphors (coupled with a more frenetic rhythm) doesn’t quite work as intended.  Once the monster is to be shown, part of the mystique disappears.  Still, it’s quite a bit better than your average horror movie, and it benefits from a couple of good performances: Patrick Wilson is fine as the everyday-man protagonist with a secret, while Rose Byrne delivers exactly the expected as the suffering wife, but it’s really Lin Shaye who steals the spotlight as a paranormal expert who knows far too much.  Effective scares and jumps and creepy hints all cleverly pepper the film, and the result is enjoyable.  Still, in retrospect Insidious may be most noteworthy as a bridge to other better films, from Sinister to The Conjuring.

47 Ronin (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">47 Ronin</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) It’s not that 47 Ronin is an entirely bad movie.  Its visuals are spectacular, its intentions are laudable and its actors do well.  But despite the vast budget and the strong technical credentials, the film feels almost unbelievably… dull.  Part of the issue seems to be meddling with the original story of the forty-seven Ronin: despite the addition of a half-Japanese protagonist and supernatural elements, nothing seems to raise the pulse of the film beyond the bare minimum of what an adventure is supposed to deliver to viewers.  In keeping with the original, the conclusion is a downer, which does seem curious after a story that has been re-thought to include standard Hollywood tropes.  At least one can revel in the visuals: the costumes are colorful, the CGI-enhanced camera swoops across the landscape, and some (only some) of the special effects are well-used.  Rinko Kikuchi is the film’s standout performer as a villainous witch: it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to her crazy energy.  Otherwise, 47 Ronin is a fairly boring affair, neither historically accurate to be respectable, nor energetic enough to be enjoyable as a purely entertaining pop-corn romp.  Carl Rinsch’s direction becomes incoherent the moment things start moving too quickly, and while the images are pretty, they’re not backed by flowing continuity: The story clunks without grace and the script doesn’t deliver much in terms of payoffs.  There’s an odd feeling of mismatched sensibilities about Hollywood taking on the Forty-seven Ronin legend: I would have much rather seen a made-in-Japan film about the subject that a Westernized version with Keanu Reeves (far too old for the role, and playing it with his usual lack of affect) forced into it.  If someone ever wonders how some film simply “don’t click”, 47 Ronin is as good an example as any.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Captain America: The Winter Soldier</strong> (2014)

(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky.  So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series.  It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy.  Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny.  (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.)  (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film.  Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries.  At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.

Antisocial (2013)

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

(On Cable TV, October 2013) “Yet another zombie movie” would normally have me roll my eyes as, well, yet another zombie movie at a time where we’ve gone well beyond saturation point on those, but Antisocial has a few things going for it.  The first being an attempt at melding horror with social criticism of (as it were) social networks.  In this case, a New Year’s Eve celebration turns horrific as the world is ravaged by an epidemic whose source turns out to be internet-driven.  While not staggeringly new (hello, The Signal, Pulse, Cell), that’s a high concept in itself (as the apocalypse plays out as status updates and videos from beyond the closed quarters of the setting), but writer/director Cody Calahan has an eye for horror at a basic level, and so Antisocial manages a few effective sequences along the way, whether we’re talking about Christmas-light flickering death or rusty basement self-lobotomy.  There’s a bit of self-aware humor among the low-budget limitations of the film, and while the acting isn’t particularly noteworthy, lead Michelle Mylett doesn’t do too badly and develops her screen presence as the film goes on.  The rest of the film could have been better (as in; more interesting characters, tighter pacing, more artful exposition), but Antisocial gets a few credits as a cheap and effective horror film with a few bigger-than-average ideas.  The sequel is reportedly in production, which may help in developing said bigger-than-average ideas into something more substantial.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein

Putnam, 1991 expanded reedition of 1961 original, 489 pages

When I took on my Heinlein re-read project (all of his four Hugo-winning novels), the one I was dreading most was Stranger in a Strange Land, largely because I didn’t like it all that much when I first read it twenty years ago.  I saw it then as pointless, dull and largely unmemorable (save for the line “You’re four of the six most popular writers alive today.”)  Twenty years later, a re-visit shows that… I’m still not that far off from my initial assessment.

(Before going any further, I should state that the only easily-accessible version of the novel I had at hand was a Book Club copy of the “uncut” 220,000-words 1991 edition, not the 160,000-words 1961 original one.  Since that was also the version I read twenty years ago, I felt that I was comparing apples-to-apples in terms of revisiting my own experience of the novel.  While I’ll admit that this “uncut” version is closer to what Heinlein had in mind when writing the novel, it is not necessarily what original readers experienced in 1961.  So while I think that most of my complaints about the novel are valid no matter the version, keep this piece of trivia in mind when I rant, later on, about the novel’s interminable digressions.)

It’s easy to take pot-shots at Stranger in a Strange Land largely because its place in SF genre history is so secure.  Not only was it a commercial and critical success in the SF genre upon publication (it sold widely and won the 1961 Hugo Award for Best Novel), but it’s one of the very few genre-SF novels to have broken through the mainstream in a significant way, even though by “mainstream” we here mean “sixties counterculture”.  With a plot that concerned itself with the establishment of a new religion and open-sharing communities, the book became a bible for the hippie movement, became (unfairly) associated with notables such as Charles Manson and even figures in the lyrics of Billy Joel’s retro-anthem “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, rhyming with “Russians in Afghanistan”.  It remains Heinlein’s best-known and reportedly best-selling novel, and has been deeply influential for a significant number of Baby-Boomers.

This being said, it definitely remains a book of the early-sixties.  It has a charming retro-futurist quality borrowing both from perennial future markers and conceptual limitations of the time, mixing flying cars, trips to Mars, film video technology, psi powers, sentient Martians and post-World-War-III world government.  Much of the book is dated and quaint by today’s standards, especially its criticism of organized religion and treatment of female characters.  As usual while discussing Heinlein’s fiction, “pretty good for that time” does not translate into “acceptable by today’s standards.”  For all of their feistiness, the female characters don’t have much agency beyond proudly choosing to serve the nearest male authority figure, while Heinlein’s portrait of the horrors of a church blending fake piousness with cynical exploitation seems almost charmingly naïve fifty years and many televangelists later.

My own issues with the novel have more to do with its plot, or rather its somewhat simplistic one.  Here a human orphan raised on Mars comes to Earth after being rescued by a follow-up expedition, bringing back extreme naiveté along with psi powers made possible by the Martian educational system.  He can make things disappear at will, can discorporate for a while, possesses superhuman intelligence and, after being socialized with humans, easily becomes a cult leader.  Much of the novel is spent witnessing his laborious education, through endless speeches usually involving Heinlein stand-in Jubal Harshaw, a cranky old man who remains the unassailable Voice of Reason throughout the novel.  There is a big break in action midway through that makes the novel even less enjoyable.

Still, it’s easy to understand Stranger in a Strange Land‘s appeal to the counter-culture of the sixties, especially when the novel aims at staid conventional thinking and starts promoting free loving individualism.  No wonder it became a foundational text for much of the late-sixties hippie communes.  Ironically, it’s this deeply influential quality that makes Stranger in a Strange Land feel like such a dated period piece: It suggests something that has been tried and shown to fail such a long time ago that it seems like a relic of another time.  (Heinlein and his apologists will rightfully point out that Heinlein wasn’t suggesting answers as much as he was raising questions about society at the time; in this light the novel was a success in that it anticipated where society was headed far more accurately than other novels of the time.  Alas, the only reward for correctly anticipating the future in SF is feeling ordinary when the future does arrive as expected.)

Is it worth a read today?  It definitely is for SF genre historians, and sixties enthusiasts.  As for other readers… it depends on how much you enjoy lectures by a cranky old guy who thinks he’s seen everything.  Heinlein’s two biggest assets as a writer were his confidence and his gift for easy prose.  Taken together without much interference by the demands of characterisation, you end up with Stranger in a Strange Land‘s passages starring the wit and wisdom of “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, neo-pessimist philosopher, devout agnostic, professional clown, amateur subversive, and parasite by choice.”  Harshaw is extraordinarily fun to read even as he (wrongly) expounds and pontificates and lectures at length.  He’s an idealized figure of how Heinlein wanted to be perceived and what some of his readers wanted to become.  As such, he’s interesting in the same ways any cranky eccentric relatives can be… in small doses.  Heinlein, as canny as he could be, was writing from a less complicated time and from our perspective, much of Stranger in a Strange Land has the interesting quality of being cynical and naïve at once.

In tallying up my reaction to Stranger in a Strange Land, the most telling detail is that the book took me six weeks to finish.  My time when I was guaranteed some reading time every day are gone, so I’d pick it up every so often out of duty, never feeling any urgency to tear through vast swatches of it as I did in reading Double Star or Starship Troopers.  Much of it (including the Harshaw lectures) was instantly forgotten, and I felt some impatience once the action moved away from the Harshaw compound.  It is a major novel in the history of the Science Fiction genre, but it remains a novel of its time.  I didn’t like it much at the time, and I still don’t like it much now.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Berberian Sound Studio</strong> (2012)

(On Cable TV, October 2014)  The only thing worse than a film that goes nowhere is a film that initially seems to go somewhere, and then doesn’t.  To its credit (or, if you’d rather, as a sole reason why you may want to see the movie despite it not going anywhere), Berberian Sound Studio begins with an intriguing half-hour.  During the 1970s, a British sound engineer ends up at an Italian recording studio where he is surprised to find out that he’s been hired to work on a horror movie.  Strange and off-putting events then occur.  And that’s pretty much it as a plot summary, because there is no resolution, no climax, and no point to it all.  Beyond the intriguing re-creation of a sound recording process (complete with seventies-era fetishism for knobs, sliders, buttons and magnetic tape), Berberian Sound Studio is all weirdness and no pay-off.  Too bad for Toby Jones: his usual nebbish persona fits perfectly as a lonely middle-aged sound engineer thrust completely out of his element.  But writer/director Peter Strickland seems to have forgotten to include the last third of the script, and the result is more frustrating than is deserved.  What’s infuriating is that there are neat tricks here and there: we never see a frame of the movie they’re working on beyond its credits sequence; there’s nary a violent act to be seen (only heard, often through violent disassembly of vegetables), a few sequences definitely feel off-putting.  But the film gets less and less interesting as it goes on, only to end abruptly at the point where most other films would start delivering answers or scares.  Cinephiles (especially those with knowledge and fondness for giallo) will like Berberian Sound Studio a lot more than general audiences.

Her (2013)

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

(On Cable TV, October 2014) Ask me about the ideal qualities of a Science Fiction movie and I’m now more likely to focus on such qualities as ideas, verisimilitude and the impact of progress on people rather than the special effects, action sequences and big bold visions of the future that initially drew me to the genre.  Her is practically a case study of those qualities: It’s a low-key but satisfying exploration of a basic SF idea: What if someone fell in love with an artificial intelligence?  Writer/Director Spike Jones couches his romantic drama in grounded terms: “Artificial intelligence” is eschewed in favour of “Operating System”, his character inhabit a world not terribly different from ours (although the way his future Los Angeles is clean, built up with a fantastic public transit system may be more science-fictional than a fully-functional AI) and the technology is an invisible part of the background rather than a showy set-piece.  Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as the mopey loner protagonist, while Scarlett Johanssen brings a strong presence to an audio-only role. (From the moment her voice cracks, we’re onboard with her OS being a real character.) But the real richness of the film is in the ideas it tackles, and those that it alludes to: While the film focuses on a thorny disembodied love story, it’s also set (through a few efficient dialog fragments) against a background of an AI-led singularity event, one that ultimately has deep consequences for the world as much as the protagonist.  This is a lovely use of SF Big Ideas, and Her‘s focus ultimately serves it well, both at populating the richness of the central story, but also at hinting at something much bigger going on elsewhere.  There are unique scenes and sequences in this film that have never been seen elsewhere so far (including a pair of love scenes that feel genuinely new), in support of a film that’s as interesting a take on social commentary as any “issues” film.  It’s easy to be enthusiastic about the film: trying to pick apart the themes alone is enough to keep anyone occupied for a while.  (All the way to the hoary “what is love, but a reflection of ourselves?”) Her may be best appreciated in retrospect: the film itself is deceptively simple on a scene-to-scene basis, but it becomes more interesting once you’ve had the chance to think about it for a while.  At last, a film that is unapologetically science-fictional, and should please both audiences that don’t like SF as well as jaded SF fans.  For once, I’m frustrated by my one-paragraph “capsule” movie review style, because I feel there’s a lot more to be said about the Her than can fit comfortably here in the margins.

The Babymakers (2012)

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

(On Cable TV, October 2014) Complaining about a Jay Chandrasekhar comedy being crass is a bit redundant, but here goes anyway: The Babymakers goes quickly from an amiable comedy to a vulgar one, then hops back and forth between the two stances in ways that seem more accidental than deliberate.  It’s supposed to be about a couple trying to conceive (itself a subject that shouldn’t be treated lightly), but it quickly aims for the lowest common denominator in setting up a sperm bank heist.  With a subject like that, you can imagine the gross-outs that inevitably follow.  It’s not that the film is lacking in laughs, or that it’s entirely without charm: Paul Schneider is a fairly good leading man, while Olivia Munn isn’t too bad in a still-rare feature film leading role. (Alas, their married-couple banter feels more like a frat-boy’s idea of a perfect marriage, but that’s roughly equal to the rest of the film.) The rest of the supporting cast is there for laughs, and Chandrasekhar himself gets a few chuckles as a seedy fixer.  Still, there are often lulls, ill-advised subplots (such as the unnecessarily-mean gay couple segment), a weak conclusion and scenes that don’t reach either for credibility or zany humor.  As a result, The Babymakers may not be terrible, but it’s not any good either, and it doesn’t have the spark of charm that’s required for transforming a mediocre comedy into a likable one. 

Identity Thief (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Identity Thief</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) What happens when Hollywood’s insistence in showcasing an irritating comic persona runs into a complete lack of sympathy?  I’ll be the first to admit that Melissa McCarthy’s supporting turn in Bridesmaids was one of the best things about it.  But based on The Heat and now Identity Thief, it looks as if that kind of humor doesn’t work as a leading performance.  Once again, McCarthy finds herself playing an abrasive, brash and thoroughly unlikable character: an identity thief, living large on other people’s accounts while incidentally ruining their lives.  Well, I’m not laughing.  Of course, thing being a bog-standard mainstream Hollywood comedy, we know what’s next: rehabilitation of her character through even worse antagonists, pitiable childhood trauma, deep-seated sweetness and out-of-character heartfelt actions.  Well guess what, Hollywood: I’m still not playing along.  That character remains unlikable throughout, and much of the film follows along with it.  It doesn’t help that Identity Thief remains by-the-numbers as a road movie featuring opposites: the plot beats are always obvious, and nothing makes the material rise above mediocrity.  Too bad; I really like Jason Bateman as the straight man, there are plenty of interesting actors buried in secondary roles (from Genesis Rodriguez to Robert Patrick to John Cho) and the film is directed cleanly by Seth Gordon, with even a spectacular car chase midway through to keep things interesting.  (But then again, mid-movie car chases have becomes something of a fixture in recent mainstream buddy comedies, and I’m not sure why.)  Identity Thief earns its audience’s antipathy early on and never lets go –by the time it’s over, we’re just glad it’s over.

Dead Man Down (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Dead Man Down</strong> (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) For some reason, I expected a bit more oomph from this thriller.  Colin Farrell isn’t the big star he used to be, so it’s not as big a surprise to find him in a quasi-direct-to-video thriller.  Still, much of Dead Man Down has the unfortunate tendency to combine a dreary-dull atmosphere with far-fetched plot beats: New York in the rain, disfigured heroine, brooding protagonist on one side; intricate revenge plan, grandiose crime bosses, rat torture, pickup crashing into a house on the other.  Director Niels Arden Oplev is best-known for the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film, but there’s a mild-mannered lack of edge to his style that make the film a bit boring to watch despite its outlandish elements.  Everything’s gray and grimy… except for Noomi Rapace, looking good despite being supposedly disfigured to a point where kids shout “Monster!” at her.  Dead Man Down surely won’t make waves or history despite finding a few interesting shooting locations near New York City: it’s a bit too sedate for the wild story it’s trying to tell, and not quite deep enough to masquerade as a character drama beyond the shootouts.  At best, it’s a competent time-waster, the kind of thriller you find late at night and can’t find any better choice.

The Details (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Details</strong> (2011)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) As far as “suburbia is hell” dark comedies are concerned, The Details runs close to the clichés: Despair over a perfect yard, home renovations, adultery, family-building and keeping good relations with the neighbors all loom large over the stranded subplots of the film.  It’s messy, chaotic, not particularly believable nor even likable, but The Details does score one or two laughs along the way, and is seldom uninteresting largely due to its one-thing-after-another approach to plotting.  For a film that practically went unseen before making its cable-TV debut, writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes’ dark comedy does boast of a pretty good cast: Seldom has anyone used Tobey Maguire’s innate blandness to better effect, while Ray Liotta, Kerry Washington, Dennis Haybert and Elizabeth Banks all turn in perfectly respectable performances.  (Still, Laura Linney earns most of the attention here with a performance that is alternately kooky, frumpy, sexy, scary and pitiable.)  As befits a film that multiplies its subplots, The Details gets a bit sprawled along the way to its dark and cynical conclusion (rather than act as a guide-post, the opening monologues tells a little bit too much), but the ride is interesting.  Don’t let the fact that you’ve never heard of the film dissuade you from taking a chance on it: It’s a sign of the current hyper-saturation of the movie industry that decent films such as this one can disappear in the system for more than three years after a limited theatrical run before resurfacing on cable TV.