(Video on Demand, February 2015) While forgettable, largely unseen film Dying of the Light does have a thing or two going for it. The first is right up there on the poster: a visibly older Nicolas Cage, graying temples and facial features highlighting his advancing age. This, after all, is a story about old people trying to come to grips with long-running trauma. If Dying of the Light had stuck to this theme, it may have been successful. Heck, had it ended ten minutes earlier, right after a meeting between two antagonists in which both measure the futility of revenge, the film would have been provocative and meditative. Instead, it keeps going, allows some out-of-place gory violence to stain the plot and ends on an intensely familiar note. Too bad, because for most of its duration, Dying of the Light is a meditative take on the modern espionage thriller, measuring the cost of the War on Terrorism and showing the toll that it takes on its combatants. The film isn’t particularly interesting as it moves through Europe and then Africa, but the film doesn’t try to be anything else but a quiet low-budget thriller. Cage, as a veteran CIA agent with a terminal illness, moves slower and with deliberation, while having two or three opportunities to indulge in his signature rants. If it hadn’t been for that dumb violent conventional ending, Dying of the Light could have been underperforming but interesting; with it, it just becomes a hum-drum spy thriller the likes of which we see too often. Veteran writer/director Paul Schraeder is on record as being disappointed in the final result (apparently completed without his input), but I’m not sure that post-production could have fixed the script’s basic issues.
(On TV, February 2015) I suppose that every generation deserves its own wild-party movie –or, more accurately, every generation of parents deserves the utter helplessness of seeing a movie showing the depths of depravity their offspring is said to be capable. So it is that Project X is designed to be the wildest party-movie of the decade, showing what happens in an age of social media when a party spins out of control. There’s a tedious found-footage stylistic element to director Nima Nourizadeh’s vision, but the real distinction of Project X is to push the excess as far as it can go. The result are literally apocalyptic, not stopping until there’s a riot and a neighborhood in flames (not to say anything about poor daddy’s car.) Of course the debauchery is meant to be off-putting (although one notes that for all of the film’s vulgarity, drug use and wanton destruction of property, there are other areas where the film stays curiously chaste), allowing the teenage audience to vicariously indulge into what is certain to horrify their parents. It works fine, although Project X would have been quite a bit stronger if it had featured more likable protagonists or, at the very least, a vision of things that wasn’t quite as misogynistic in its treatment of female characters. For all of its faults, though, Project X does have a bit of a narrative rhythm to it, and once you get used to the idea that it’s meant to wallow in excess, there is a bit of curiosity in seeing how far it’s willing to go. For post-teenage audiences, tut-tutting is included in the admission price.
(Video on Demand, February 2015) Perhaps the most interesting thing about Horrible Bosses 2 is the length to which this sequel is determined to follow-up on a film that didn’t need a sequel. I mean; our heroes having gotten rid of their horrible bosses, what’s left to do? Get newer even more horrible bosses? For a short while, as they create their own company and bumble around making terrible mistakes, it almost looks as if the sequel is ready to invert the roles and allow them to become the horrible bosses. But that’s not to last, as they are swindled by a horrible client, stuck with a kidnapping victim with plans of her own, and overextend itself to bring back the two surviving horrible bosses of the previous film. All handled with a slick tone that never gets too far out of control: For all of the potential violence (and sexual debauchery) hinted at, Horrible Bosses 2 knows that it’s meant to be a mainstream comedy and wouldn’t dare go where audiences won’t like. (Although at least one innuendo in the coda is deeply disturbing) Still: the film moves fairly quickly, gives short but striking moments to both Kevin Spacey (as a horrible boss who won’t let prison tone down his disdain for the protagonists) and Jennifer Aniston (once again playing sultry nymphomaniac), whereas leads Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day are once again up to their own comic personas. The film does have a few visually ambitious moments: There is a good business start-up pan shot early on, and the film is never better or more engaging than when the protagonists lay out their plan (which fails horribly, as expected.) Otherwise, Horrible Bosses 2 is a disposable sequel that’s not too difficult to watch –a bit of faint praise, maybe, but also an acknowledgement that it could have been much worse.
(On TV, February 2015) It’s obvious that Role Models doesn’t try to do anything new; beyond the surface of a crude comedy in which irresponsible men get to mentor impressionable teenagers, much of the film is bog-down standard Hollywood sweetness and conventional values in rude gift-wrapping. (As with most movies in that mold, the irreverent first act gradually leads to a far more sentimental conclusion.) At least the film doesn’t err in featuring Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott in roles well-suited to their comic personas and letting them play off each other. Jane Lynch and Ken Jeong have smaller but striking roles. Much of the film’s interest is in the small set-pieces, or the unusual emphasis on Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP) as a sub-setting. There’s not a whole lot more to say about the film because it’s so familiar: Playing with genre formula to the hilt, Role Models at least has the advantage of executing said formula competently, with enough laughs on the way to a satisfyingly conventional conclusion. It’s watchable enough.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) As a director, Doug Liman’s been hit-and-miss, but Edge of Tomorrow is a definite hit. You could crudely summarize the film as “sci-fi Groundhog Day” (even though it’s adapted from a Japanese Science-Fiction novel) and grind your teeth at the dumb setup in which humans are somehow stuck fighting aliens in a European ground war. But once the mechanics of the time-loop premise are laid out and the complications begin piling up for our protagonist, Edge of Tomorrow gains a strong forward narrative drive. Tom Cruise is pretty good as a back-room officer thrust into bloody combat, especially when he has to relive the same events over and over again until he gets it right. You can dig a bit into the film and come away with strong commentary on video-game playing and the consequences of choice, but it’s just as easy to be swept along by the fast-paced action and dark humor. Emily Blunt has a terrific role as a battle-hardened veteran, and she sells it perfectly. (Although I would have liked an older female actress in the role, just to lower the age difference between her and Cruise) Edge of Tomorrow definitely hits its stride in its middle third as time-loop possibilities are ingeniously exploited, and the film’s editing is taught-tight. It’s a bit unfortunate that the film’s third act seems so flaccid after such high notes: The night-time Paris sequence seem suddenly interminable and visually bleak, although I’m sucker enough for a happy ending that I won’t begrudge the sudden changes in the film’s rules in time for the coda. Edge of Tomorrow is just different and playful enough to distinguish itself from other run-of-the-mill SF action films, although it’s flawed enough to make anyone wish for a few further tweaks. Still: Not bad at all.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Saying that The Signal has a Twist may itself be a spoiler in itself, but I think an essential one, because knowledge of a Twist may help is bridging the gap between a very slow and annoying beginning, and the more intriguing elements of its conclusion. It is also a warning of sorts that the Twist is borderline-nonsensical, shining an unflattering light on the events of the film and diminishing it by way of an answer that doesn’t make any sense. Along the way, though, there is an interesting mystery, Lawrence Fishburne in a somewhat villainous role, a Lin Shaye quasi-cameo, clever visuals on a limited budget and a big, big finale. I’m certainly curious to see what’s next for Writer/director William Eubank. Unfortunately, The Signal itself doesn’t make much sense. (And reading the “Themes” section on the film’s Wikipedia page reveals more pretentiousness than clues.) It’s all fine and well that science-fiction is attracting new filmmakers willing to play with spectacular ideas on limited budgets… but that’s not an excuse to forgo story logic and satisfying conclusions to a movie-long mystery. Ah, if only the surface sheen of The Signal could have been matched by an appropriate depth…
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Even I am sometimes astonished at the kind of dumb comedy movie that I find funny, and I’m unwilling to go much further down the totem pole of stupidity than A Haunted House 2. A Marlon Wayans parody of recent horror films (most notably Insidious, Sinister, The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity), A Haunted House 2 seemingly has no filter – given the onslaught of crude and puerile humor (usually accompanied by loud shrieks), I’d be wary of watching it with anyone else. (It doesn’t help that the sexual content of the film often goes beyond the limits of what’s usually seen in mainstream comedies.) It fires ten gags per minute, and lands maybe one or two of those. Still, that’s a lot of comic energy (especially from Wayans himself, willing to do anything for a laugh), and I can forgive long unfunny stretches if these are occasional smirks along the way. I will admit that it’s not as good (if good is a word worth using) than the first one, which at least had one or two halfway decent moments and a semblance of thematic depth to its comical hijinks. Still, I’m an easy mark for that kind of film, largely because unlike the bottom-of-the-barrel Friedberg/Setzer “parodies”, this one actually tries for laughs beyond simple re-creation of iconic sequences and slapstick violence. I may feel guilty about it, but A Haunted House 2 gets an “eh, had a few laughs” from me.
(Video on Demand, February 2015) High-profile dramas have become a bit of an extinct species at the cineplex in this age of multi-screen spectacles, which makes The Judge’s shortcomings a bit more frustrating than usual. It does have the advantage of a good solid cast, well-used in appropriate roles: Robert Downey, Jr. is in his element as a fast-talking lawyer forced to go back to his small-town origins in order to take care of his father, who’s most appropriately played by Robert Duvall. Other supporting players include Vera Farmiga (radiant), Vincent D’Onofrio (dour) and Dax Shepard (hilariously clumsy). Legal proceedings supplements a nostalgic return to small-town family, alongside romantic entanglements and portentous end-of-life drama. If you get the sense that this is all familiar material juggled in a fairly conventional way, then you’d be right: The Judge is straight-up Hollywood classic filmmaking from the time where CGI monsters hadn’t conquered all available multiplex screens. (Although the film does contain a lengthy CGI pull-out shot of the protagonist driving down a road that feels intensely out-of-place.) It feels familiar and disappointing at the same time, the kind of movie everyone loves to mock when talking about Oscar-bait films and audience-friendly mainstream dramas. Still, The Judge works more often than it doesn’t, and seeing Downey, Jr. in a non-superhero role has become, at this time, a bit of a novelty. There’s a lot to quibble with the script’s pacing, odd choices of sub-plots, drawn-out endings (two or three of them, depending on how you count) and often-lazy approach to characterization for the secondary players. Still, The Judge does work well at evoking a quasi-nostalgic sense of place, at creating showcase roles for the two lead Roberts and at providing undemanding drama for two hours. It could have been worse, although it’s true that it could have been much better.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) When I say that I have a soft spot for silly comedies, Walk of Shame is the kind of film I’m think about. It’s amiable, silly, and episodic (although it does tie things up as it progresses), doesn’t really lead to a Big Important Message and allows charming actors to do their best. Here, Elizabeth Banks is the highlight as a local news anchor who suffers the worst night of her life as complications pile up following a wild night out. Taking fullest advantage of Los Angeles as a magnet for strange behavior, Walk of Shame starts piling up the absurdities early on, and doesn’t really stop until its “fugitive in a yellow dress” has caused an indecent amount of mayhem. It’s not meant to be refined, but it does accomplish most of what it tries to do. My mild liking for the film is probably unexplainable given its reliance on humiliation comedy, ethnic stereotypes, directorial laziness and a big dose of misogyny. I can’t quite make sense of it myself, except for the following: “soft spot for silly comedies”.
(On TV, February 2015) Am I allowed to say that I really disliked I Am Sam? It’s not as if I’m going to deny its strengths: it’s got an Oscar-calibre performance by Sean Penn at its heart, as he portrays a mentally-challenged man caring for a daughter who’s becoming perceptibly smarter than him. Legal complications ensue. Having seen Penn at work elsewhere, this is a fantastic chameleon-like performance that rings true to the character being portrayed. But it’s in service of a film that’s unabashedly manipulative, even as it presents a heart-breaking premise with no satisfying way out. It doesn’t help that the film is very, very long and wallows in the misery it creates. Michelle Pfeiffer brings some interest back in the film when she enters it as a fire-breathing high-powered lawyer, but she’s soon subdued in mawkish sentiments and character development. To his credit, writer/director Jesse Nelson knows exactly what kind of film she’s making, and she hits her own targets with a decent amount of skill. It’s really my fault that I wasn’t receptive to the material, and increasingly antsy to make it sane to the end credits. I did a considerable amount of writing during I Am Sam, which at least helped me deal with my reviews backlog.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Sometimes, I wonder if growing old isn’t best characterized by the ability to recognize patterns and realize that they will go away in time. This probably comes alongside a certain jadedness and inability to experience things as-new. So it is that in the middle of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Giver (and I may have forgotten a few), it’s all too easy to see that we’re in the middle of a teenage dystopian mini-trend, one that can’t help but go back to common elements that seem repetitive when seen in close proximity. Uneasy teenager with special abilities marginalized by rigid post-apocalyptic society, going up against authority figures to break the system? I may be anticipating here, but check, check and check. At least Shailene Woodley can sustain the demands of her role, and the technical presentation of future Chicago (walled-off as it is) is interesting enough. The film has bits and pieces of passing interest despite riffing off an increasingly common sub-genre template: Maggie Q and Zoe Kravitz have good small role, while Kate Winslet has somehow earned a place as an authority figure. Various up-and-coming actors surround them, even though they’re not asked to do much here. Fans of well-developed science-fiction will roll their eyes at the nonsensical, precedent-less society here presented, or at the dumb-as-rocks plot that unfolds. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say here about the film: It’s bare-minimum effort SF for teenagers, and it’s unlikely to distinguish itself enough to become a reference even five years from now. On the other hand, Woodley and her cohort will be able to parley the success of the film into higher-profile jobs, so it’s not as if the film will be a complete loss. (I suspect that it may become a key piece of whatever “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game will be played in the future.)
(On Cable TV, February 2015) I haven’t seen the original 1987 Robocop in at least two decades and wasn’t a big fan even then (I’ve never been fond of grotesque ultra-violence), so this remake doesn’t offend me on any level other than a basic exasperation at Hollywood’s insistence in pilfering existing concepts rather than try to come up with something new. It turns out that while this remake doesn’t quite make a case for existing, it does tackle a few ambitious themes, is competently directed and doesn’t feel like an outrage. The basic premise remains the same, as a severely-wounded policeman is remade as a cyborg and has to face dangerous criminals at a time where corruption is institutionalized. This Robocop clearly exists in an environment where dubious moral judgements are made by corporate executives, where automated force projection is seen as desirable and where the lines between man and machine is becoming blurred on its own. As a result, the film touches upon issues of political manipulation and free will that weren’t strictly necessary for an action film of this kind. (It also features a hair-raising scene of pure body horror that goes beyond the limits of its PG-13 rating) Left untouched is the idea that police work isn’t necessarily all about well-informed deadly firepower, but I suppose that something has to be left for the inevitable sequel. Joel Kinnaman isn’t much of a presence in the titular role, but Michael Keaton is interesting as an affably evil CEO, while Gary Oldman offers a bit of humanity as a low-key scientist trying to balance curiosity with ethics. Jay Baruchel and Samuel L. Jackson also have smaller roles that capitalize on their core persona while stretching them a little bit. Still, the star here should be director Jose Padilha, suffering under Hollywood constraints to deliver a dynamic direction while touching upon quite a bit of thematic content. If the film has a flaw, it’s that the villains are a bit dull, and the ending somehow fails to cohere and bring everything together: it feels more like a few things thrown together for the sake of resolution and a bit of robot-on-robot combat. All told, though, it’s a serviceable remake, a bit better than it most likely could have been in other hands. Make no mistake, though: People are still going to remember the original far more readily than this remake.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) The American 1998 Godzilla film may be nearly two decades old, it’s still enough of a cautionary tale to lower expectations about the 2014 version. Fortunately, this latest iteration of the character doesn’t need lowered expectations: Ably helmed by director Gareth Edwards (making the jump to multi-million moviemaking right from the clever low-budget Monsters), Godzilla is an imperfect but satisfying take on the classic character, updated to the latest expectations but old-fashioned in its willingness to deliver the basics of a monster movie. One of the best demonstrations of this film’s understanding of the Godzilla mythos is its explicit willingness to treat Godzilla as a force of nature, an anti-hero to be used against bigger threats rather than a threat in itself. Relatively daring is the decision to keep Godzilla half-seen until late in the film, occasional glimpses of his bulk being enough to keep us satisfied until the climax. Coming in late in the monster-movie game, Godzilla can also afford to skip over the expected parts, showing us the resulting destruction as a highlight news reel rather than the main sequence itself. The way the mythology is explained is quite successful, instantly raising the credibility of the film with some entertaining confabulations. The Japanese origins of the character are treated with respect (who better than Ken Watanabe to be the voice of reason?), and there are a number of small mythos winks (from 1954 to Mothra) to keep even casual fans entertained. Where the film doesn’t do as well is with its human characters: While Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad as the protagonist (showing a far more respectable image than in the Kick-Ass films or Anna Karenina), he’s a bit underwritten, and that also goes for the other characters. The fast-moving nature of the film offers few opportunities for credible character involvement, and some of the plot tricks get far-fetched after a while. Still, let’s not be overly critical: This Godzilla is a pretty good treatment of the character, and it offers a steady succession of small thrills along the way. Not bad at all.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) If you can’t be bothered to watch yet another romantic comedy, then how about a romantic comedy parody? They Came Together takes aim at rom-com clichés with a considerable amount of deadpan sarcastic silliness, using actors who have played those very same roles dozens of time before. To its credit, writer/director David Wain doesn’t try to parody specific scenes or movies, but stick to the archetypical structure of romantic comedies as a clothesline on which to hang the gags. (“Oh, and… Thanks.”) Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler ably anchor a large cast of familiar comic actors, which adds to the interest. As the kind of comic film that embraces absurdity and is willing to try just about anything to get a laugh, They Came Together is definitely uneven: good jokes can be followed by dumb stuff, and the film is a bit too fond of the idea that some things are funnier the more often they are repeated. (“Oh, and… Thanks.”) The humor is a bit snarkier-than-thou –which is a way of saying that some will laugh a lot and others won’t see the point. It may be a bit too clever for its own good at times, but I’ll take excessive cleverness over the kind of painfully unfunny stupidity that parodies have all-too-often become over the past two decades. They Came Together is best seen without too many preconceptions, and funny enough to stock up a late evening.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Mama may not be a spectacular horror film, but it’s a remarkably good one, and the thrills it offers are a cut above the usual run-of-the-mill horror productions. Focusing on orphaned children, long-lost secrets, flawed protagonists and a distinctive monster, Mama is heavy on atmosphere and has the merit to aim for chills and emotional investment rather than jump-scares and explicit gore. Writer/director Andrés Muschietti knows what he’s doing, and while nothing in Mama is particularly original, he’s able to wring quite a bit of tension out of familiar elements. The titular Mama is creepy enough, but it’s the complex interplay of parenthood issues (abandonment, fostering, hesitancy, and so on) that clearly lift the script above the average. (There’s an element of the conclusion that feels almost daring in transgressing the kids-in-perils clichés.) It helps that the main role belongs to the captivating Jessica Chastain (notwithstanding the unflattering haircut) and that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gets a role beyond Game of Thrones. At a time where old-school horror is making a triumphant comeback, Mama may not be quite as good as Sinister, The Conjuring or Insidious, but it’s worthy to hang with the front-runners of the pack and remind us again that horror isn’t just about how much blood can fit on-screen. Don’t expect anything startlingly new, though.