(On Cable TV, December 2014) In some ways, it’s fitting that Enemy should be the last film I’ve seen in 2014, given how my reaction to it is in many ways a reflection of where I am in my cinephile’s journey. Because Enemy is one of those movies where an enigmatic plot ends up being a metaphor for a deeper meaning that may not be fully apparent from a superficial viewing. Here, a mild-mannered college professor discovers that he has a doppelganger, an extrovert actor. When the two men meet, issues of fatherhood, relationships and intimacy all come up, in an enigmatic mixture of mystery, fantasy and allegory. Anyone watching the film for plot will be frustrated, especially if they expect stated answers by the end of the film. There is a lot to decode in the film, starting with the issue of whether there is a doppelganger and whose doppelganger it is. Now, as it happens, I’m at that stage in my movie-watching life when I can recognize the deeper levels of interpretation –but can’t be bothered to care. Purposefully-enigmatic films that revel in ambiguity (all the way to the director remaining coy about what it all meant in press interviews) are more annoying than anything else, and my ultimate reaction is to opt out: I refuse to put the puzzle together. So what’s left in Enemy for us refusniks? Fortunately, a well-crafted film. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve does really well in this second (chronologically first) collaboration with Jake Gyllenhall, leading a carefully designed film bathed in the kind of gold light that makes Toronto looks either cool or creepy. Gyllenhall himself gets a plum pair of roles as a split personality playing off himself. The film may be quiet, but the second-to-last shot is a pure shocker, fit to send even forewarned viewers climbing the drapes while shouting HOLYCATS, WHATWASTHAT?!?!! Too bad that the film wants to be so maddeningly mysterious. It asks a lot of its audience, so it shouldn’t be surprised if many won’t play along.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) Perhaps the most interesting thing about this average euro-spy thriller is how it can be seen as an attempt by Pierce Brosnan to create a franchise for himself. Given that Brosnan has purchased the rights to an entire series of espionage thriller novels, has produced the film and stars in it, this is no mere catty supposition as much as it’s clear-headed analysis. Brosnan, as an ex-Bond, knows the advantages of having his own franchise and if he’s willing to put his money on the table –who can blame him? Of course, it would be best if he was able to deliver a good movie. While The November Man isn’t actually bad, it’s almost admirably average. Blending an intensely familiar blend of elements (somber east-European political machinations, past massacres being covered up, rogue superiors, kidnapped family members, protégé-turned-enemy, and so on…) in a film put together in a competent but mechanical fashion. Fortunately, The November Man is average in a genre that can be satisfying even when it’s mediocre: I hadn’t seen a spy thriller in some time and was almost hungering for an example, any example in the genre. So my expectations were met, and I wasn’t asking for much more than that. This being said, The November Man has problems. As an adaptation of a latter novel in the series, it solicits emotional depth from the viewers (oh no! The other of his child has been killed! Oh no, his daughter has been kidnapped!) that it hasn’t had the time to earn in a few minutes. The stakes are relatively low, the characters and dialogues are fairly dull –basically, while the film meets expectations, there’s nothing here that surpasses them. The November Man is the very definition of a pleasant but instantly forgettable genre piece, good enough for an evening but almost entirely forgotten the next morning.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) Disneynature is on a hot streak lately, and Bears is merely the latest in a strong line-up of nature documentaries that bring the latest available filmmaking technology to classic animal storylines. Here, we follow a mother bear and her cub through a year of trials and tribulations. (Don’t worry: everything turns out fine for both of them.) The high-definition images are crisp and colorful, and the script does a nice job at anthropomorphising animal behavior in terms that make it accessible to the entire family. John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as the narrator finding a good balance between the goofiest moments and the more dangerous ones. Bears delivers exactly what it promises, and so pretty much cuts off any longer discussion of its merits: It’s perfect family viewing, often beautiful, frequently funny and ultimately entirely satisfying.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) Now that we have entered the third or fourth stage of found-footage horror movies, it’s obvious that one camera isn’t enough: The Bay shows how a collage of personal video recording, TV footage, security cameras, dashcams, recorded video chats has become the state-of-the-art in showing how a small town is overrun by gross slimy monsters. To its credit, The Bay does feature a striking monster and a deeper environmental them. The problem is that The Bay doesn’t quite know what to do with what it has at its disposal. It overplays some cards, underplays others, does itself no favours by blending its editing into fragments and calls attention to itself without actually deserving acclaim. While the environmentally-conscious card is fine, it’s played far too often and far too stridently, making the same point long after the premise has been established. Similarly, The Bay fools no one by making a claim to real events having occurred and being covered up. While director Barry Levinson earns points by splitting its story in multiple found-footage streams, the film doesn’t actually present that many interesting characters –the most interesting story, featuring a family with a young baby, ends up concluding weakly without much of a climax. The Bay repeatedly squanders what’s most interesting about itself to the point where it becomes just another runoff-the-mill horror film, perhaps a bit more annoying than most in how mediocre it ends up.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I’m not going to be coy about my biases going into this movie: The original South-Korean Oldboy did not need to be remade for an American audience. Seeing Spike Lee tackle the project is a bit of a waste, especially when the result seems to stick as closely to the original. I suppose that the film would be worth a look for those who haven’t seen the original: It has an intriguing mystery at its core, an unconventional revenge story, enough icky plot points to make it memorable and a bit of style as bonus. (It’s best not to think too long about the finer points of the plot, but so it goes.) Josh Brolin is a solid protagonist, Samuel L. Jackson has a flashy short role and Sharlito Copley turns in another off-kilter performance as the villain. Still, this American Oldboy runs long, never quite connects to the protagonist, somehow doesn’t earn its wilder plot points and doesn’t quite know how to control its tone. This being said, nearly everyone who should have seen the original has seen the original, and comparisons are where much of this remake’s interest is about. It does seem to beg comparison, so closely does it adhere to the original –there’s even a bit of a fake-out where it seems as if the most effective twist of the original has been neutralized. And while much of the remake is less impressive than the original, its coda is more credible than the hypnotism mumbo-jumbo of the Korean version. In the end, though, this Oldboy falls in-between respectable cinema and effective exploitation, satisfying no one –and annoying those who thought the (even flawed) original should have been left alone.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) When I state that Hours is an intense nightmare all-too-accurately presented as a thriller, you can be sure that I’m saying so as someone who, not too long ago, went through the exhilarating wringer of caring for a newborn. Becoming a father means an accumulation of fatigue and helplessness that can’t be accurately described to anyone who hasn’t been there, but Hours manages to take the worst of those moments and spin them into a thriller in which things keep getting worse. Consider a new father, being told that his wife died during childbirth and that his daughter depends on a mechanical respirator. Consider that same father stuck in a vacated New Orleans hospital in the path of Hurricane Katrina, turning a crank for a mechanical generator every few minutes to keep his daughter alive. Consider feral dogs, unfriendly thieves, lack of supplies, hunger, fatigue, pain, grief all battering the protagonist until his world become nothing more than a mechanical motion. Hours may not have much (it’s a low-budget effort with few locations and a handful of characters) but it makes the most out of what it has, and uses the defunct Paul Walker in a career-best role as the new father stuck in an impossible situation. This is a thriller that grabs viewers by the throat and doesn’t let go until it has exhausted everyone from the dramatic possibilities of the situation. I don’t think that the film will work as well on non-parents, largely because its thematic and dramatic engines are so closely aligned with one another. But if you’re likely to be in Hours’ target audience, sit down, relax… and don’t forget to breathe.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) It’s easy to see why The Longest Week would annoy many of its viewers. It has, after all, a pampered trust-fund protagonist (played by Jason Bateman, in a bit of a stretch from his usual everyman persona) who ends up learning about life during a week in which he’s cut off from his allowance. Bereft of useful skills, housing, emergency money or lasting friendships, he ends up pursuing a woman despite his friend’s obvious attraction for her. “What a cad!” seems to be the refrain, and it’s easy to be exasperated by this affluent-first-world-problems film. It’s tough to sympathise with such a protagonist, and even tougher to actually care when he behaves so badly. This being said, the movie isn’t as exasperating as the preceding may suggest: Droll narration bolsters the movie almost as much as the raw charm of Bateman and Olivia Wilde as the love interest. The slight dialogue and scattered laughs mean that even if this romantic comedy fails, it fails to the generally amiable level of average romantic comedies –which is to say that you don’t have too bad of a time watching it. The Longest Week is a bit smug and precious and pretentious, but it’s charming in its own one-percenter-narcissistic-Manhattanite way, which is quite a bit more than you’d think.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I really thought I’d like this movie more. After all, I’m a big fan of the original The Raid, which managed to bring back the best in action moviemaking (long shots, focused premise, physical stunts from the actors) in a tight and intense package. I love the Asian tradition of action filmmaking, and The Raid 2 got rave reviews ever since its festival debut. Alas, and this may be more of a reflection of the way I have to watch movies these days, it quickly became obvious that The Raid 2 was going to be interminable. Clocking at a hefty 150 minutes, The Raid 2 seems lost in subplots, too-similar in its execution and diffuse when it should have been as tightly plotted as its predecessor. There are two or three prologues, far too many fights that look the same, and an overall blandness to it all. I was unexplainably bored through much of it, my patience (and available time) sorely tested by the results. Fortunately, there are highlights. In a film that’s too long, the car chase feels too short. Director Gareth Evans shows that he’s one of the best action directors of the moment by letting his trained actors show what they can do in a series of long shots. The cinematography is occasionally impressive, and it I had been in a mood to better appreciate the twists and turns of the sprawling plot, I’m sure I would have been a bit more upbeat about the result. While I reserve the right to change my mind after a more relaxed viewing, I reluctantly concede that The Raid 2 is a bit of a dud as far as I’m concerned: too long, to meandering and too unfocused to best serve the incredible action sequences that it contains.
(On TV, December 2014) Romantic comedies are too-often considered from the point of view of the woman that it’s still a bit of a novelty when one is told from the point of view of the man. It’s even rarer to tell a very funny film about a relationship that doesn’t end well. I’m not spoiling much about the film given its definitive title and non-linear narration, in which we jump back and forth between the seasons of a romance, and know that it’s not going to end with the union of the protagonists. How we get there, however, it more than part of the charm. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (offering an interesting counterpoint to his latter role in Don Jon) plays the protagonist, a young man infatuated with the idea of romantic love and having the misfortune of loving someone who definitely doesn’t. The film is told from his perspective so closely that the female lead character isn’t much more than a superficial façade behind which he stuffs his hopes and dreams. (Ironic points for casting Zooey Deschannel, often better liked for her persona than her specific characters) That it doesn’t quite work like that is part of the film’s ironies. Fortunately, the writing of the film is crisp and hip (musical number? Sure!), blending modern cynicism with very real heartbreak. That it works, and ends on a relatively high note (not only punning on the film’s title, but appropriately – for a budding architect- climaxing within Los Angeles’ Bradbury building) is an eloquent testimony to the film’s peppiness, from two likable lead actors to a style that throws everything on-screen in a dizzying montage of narration, pop music, flights of fancy and plain old good moviemaking –it’s an impressive debut for director Marc Webb, who should take a break from the meaningless Spider-Man films and get back to these kind of films. Occasionally hipsterish, (500) Days of Summer nonetheless feels like an original take on an overdone genre, and more than worth a look even for those who think they are tired of romantic comedies.
(On TV, December 2014) The advantage of being director/actor Clint Eastwood is being famous enough to indulge into a bit of self-deconstruction with wider archetypical implications. At least that’s the message I’m getting from Gran Torino, which seems delighted to mess around with ideas of masculinity as often set in stone by Eastwood. The dramatic possibilities are obvious once the basic premise is established: an isolated widower, displeased at the immigrant family moving next door, forced to coach an aimless teenager about the finer points of what it means to be a man. Squinting, grunting and cursing like a self-parody of himself, Eastwood eventually punches through his caricature to reveal a different kind of steely resolve, one that shows self-sacrifice as being the ultimate expression of service. As with most of Eastwood’s films, Gran Torino doesn’t play well with details: The actors (all chosen from within a select ethnic group, causing controversies best described on Wikipedia) aren’t all fine thespians, and Gran Torino plays better as a story than a piece of cinematographic art. Still, it flows nicely, deals with social issues of clashing ethnicity and justice and does offer a bit of an unconventional take on the big dramatic finale. Irreverent, surprisingly sentimental in a very “crying manly tears” fashion, Gran Torino does stand not only as an interesting film in its own right, but kind of a last-days answer to many films in Eastwood’s filmography.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) By now, the mismatched-buddy-cop routine is old, so it’s more a matter of execution than originality of premise. Here, Kevin Hart gets to play a diminutive motor-mouth trying to impress a grizzled police officer in order to earn his approval to marry his sister. It’s all familiar stuff (and no one will go see Ride Along in order to make sense of its criminal subplot), but fortunately it’s sufficiently well-made to carry viewers along for the ride. Ice Cube as a gruff cop is now practically typecasting (although there’s a pretty funny flash-cut with a Cypress Hill sting), and he plays it as well as anyone could. Hart himself is also funny in a role that easily could have turned annoying. The film is by-the-number (in fact, so by-the-number that you can find an admiring mention of its early script in the 2004 formula-screenwriter’s-bible Save the Cat!) but unobjectionably charming in its own mass-market sanitized way. It may not amount to much, but it’s a decent time-waster.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) Someday, a more advanced civilization will comb over sex-themed mainstream American comedies to analyze the trouble psyche of North America and the results won’t be pretty. They’ll wonder at the strange blend of titillation and reprobation that seem to form the backbone of such movies and conclude ghastly things about our hang-ups, our push-pull relationship to sex and the ways we compartmentalize aspects of our lives. In the meantime, we get to enjoy the cheeky-but-never-arousing Sex Tape, which seems determined to stay on the good old grounds of humiliation comedy as soon as naughtiness is involved. To be fair, Cameron Diaz and an unusually-gaunt Jason Segel seem game to do just about anything in order to get laughs –still, it’s the supporting players who often get the best scenes, whether it’s Ellie Kemper and Rob Corddry sharing one of the film’s rare truly-naughty moments, or Rob Lowe playing up to type as a coked-out boss. The film gets a decent amount of chuckles and grins, but often feels like a wasted opportunity by playing it as safe as possible given the subject matter. As such, Sex Tape ends up in an unremarkable wasteland of conventional comedies, curiously forgettable despite the subject matter.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) Some movies seem to come out of nowhere even when you’re paying attention, and so I recently realized that I hadn’t seen Intouchables even though it had received an astonishing number of box-office admissions, reviews, awards and popular votes on IMDB. Of course, North-America viewers may be excused: The film wasn’t widely released in the US, but was a striking success elsewhere in the world (including in its native France, when it raked up more than 19 million tickets sold) and if you check the details of its high IMDB ranking, you can see the difference. You will ask, of course, whether the film deserves this overseas success, and the answer will be comforting: As a story about a paraplegic French aristocrat who hires a poor black man as his caretaker, Intouchables has almost all of the checklist items for heartwarming Oscar-bait movies: Physical disability, class struggle, romance, triumph-of-the-human-spirit stuff, etc. But Intouchables does more than the strict minimum, most remarkably allowing us early on to laugh along with the disabled character rather than being put off by his condition. The first five minutes, remarkably enough, give us a nighttime car chase through Paris highways that results in a high-comedy sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Disability here isn’t to be pitied, and while most of the film revolves around the impoverished, borderline-criminal young man (Omar Sy, in a compelling performance) who becomes an aristocrat’s caretaker, the far more interesting character is the aristocrat (played by François Clouzet, incredibly likable) who voluntarily chooses to entrust his life to such an irreverent character. It’s based on a true story, but loosely enough not to matter. While the film does have a number of lengthy moments, a weak ending and some on-the-nose segments, it’s insidiously effective –by the time it’s over, it manages to follow a fairly rote formula in a way that’s lively and entertaining enough to be enjoyable.
(On TV, December 2014) I’m not a big fan of big romantic dramas, but in the decade since it was released, The Notebook has become a modern classic-of-sorts in its genre, as essential viewing for romance fans as, say, the contemporary Shaun of the Dead can be for zombie fans. And despite the cynicism that one can bring to it, The Notebook remains curiously effective in large part due to great performances and a killer hook of an ending that wraps it as definitely as any romance can. This is, obviously, the film that has made Ryan Gosling famous as a sex-symbol, and solidified a Hollywood career for Rachel McAdams – their onscreen performance is compelling (although by now nearly everyone knows that they weren’t getting along at the time) and their much-lauded poster-making rainstorm kiss scene can impress even the curmudgeons in the audience. Director Nick Cassavetes goes old-school in the way he helms the film, and that earnestness helps sell the old-fashioned story being told. The last few minutes are exceptionally effective, and cement the film’s high-drama romance. While The Notebook may not target me, there’s no denying how well it works at its intended goals, and deserves its place as a film whose reputation has grown in the years since its release.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) Has Joseph Gordon-Lewitt become the spokesman for an entire generation? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a guy’s shoulders, but in comparing Don Jon with (500) Days of Summer, it’s hard to avoid feeling that in-between those two characters, he’s tackling how modern young men feel about love. But whereas his (500) Days of Summer character was a hopeless romantic, his Don Jon is a cynical, stunted ladies’ man addicted to pornography, to a point where it’s cutting him off from the world. It takes an encounter with an equally-addicted romantic movie fan (Scarlett Johanssen, playing against type as an unlikable urban princess) for him to grow up a bit. That Gordon-Lewitt would take on such a role is impressive enough, but to find out that he both wrote and directed the film makes it even more impressive. Don Jon is at its best in its first two-thirds, as the story remains relatable and sharp-witted observational (the Swiffer scene is the one that remains in my mind weeks after seeing the film); the last third gets a bit preachy and far-fetched to its own detriment. I would have liked to see a bit more commentary on the toxic pull of romantic comedies and a little bit less of the ending’s easy sentimentalism. Still, as a directorial debut Don Jon is self-assured enough to be interesting, with good performances from good actors and a script that’s both funny and insightful. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait too long for Gordon-Lewitt’ next film as a writer/director.