(On Cable TV, March 2015) How can a feel-good movie like Billy Elliot feel so dull? Maybe when it’s set in a time and place (industrial England, mid-eighties) that I find insufferable, featuring a story told so many other times in other better movies, with placeholders rather than characters, and a finale that’s entirely unsurprising. The plot is simplistic enough: a young boy (Jamie Bell) wants to become a ballet dancer, and that aspiration doesn’t go over well within his own blue-collar worker community. Many obstacles are overcome on the way to a foregone conclusion. Now, buried deep within this review is the admission is that I waited far too long (like, months) in-between watching the film and writing this review, and I can recall almost nothing of the film other than its crushing boredom, alongside a side-order of despair at the setting. At least I’ll admit that I’m about as far away from the target audience of this film as I can be, and that I’m not seriously arguing that it’s a bad film in any way. Still, I found little of interest in Billy Elliot, despite the film’s triumphant finale and generally amiable presentation.
(On TV, March 2015) While As Good As It Gets was a good box-office hit and a monster award contender in 1997, I had somehow managed to avoid it until now. Featuring iconic performances and oft-quoted material, I thought I knew what the film was about. I was wrong, of course, but the idealized version of the film that I carried in my head remains more satisfying than the one on-screen. Both don’t start to diverge until fairly late in the film: As a confirmed obsessive-compulsive misanthrope who has somehow become a much-loved best-selling author, Jack Nicholson has one of his signature character here, and the cockiness with which he delivers either put-downs or compliments is nothing short of legendary. (And those quotes… they’re ever-green.) Opposite him, Helen Hunt has rarely been more appealing as a single-mom waitress whose boundless compassion is tested by a thoroughly detestable human being. (Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear is just fine as a gay artist overcoming the trauma of an attack, although this is really not his movie.) As Good as It Gets is enjoyable as it forces these characters to be together for a while, their eccentricities and neuroses bouncing off each other through great dialogue and telling details. But the film seems to lose itself somewhere in its third quarter of the film: For all of the interest in the platonic friendship between our two leads, I feel that the film takes a step too far by matching them together romantically. The age difference between the two is bad enough (twenty six years!), but the film itself seems to acknowledge how bad a fit they are, and the small moment of détente at the very end isn’t particularly convincing: I would have been far happier a viewer at seeing both of them heal each other, and evolve in their own respective directions. But, eh, what do I know? As Good as it Gets made money, got great reviews and remains a bit of a reference almost twenty years later. Given that, I’ll take my opinion and keep it for myself.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) As useless as Planes: Fire & Rescue can be (it’s an unneeded sequel to an unneeded spinoff of the much-lambasted Cars), there’s still a bit to like about this film. The basics of the plot are far-fetched and simplistic at once, but they do manage the trick of making this sequel a refreshingly different film from the race-minded Planes. This allows for new characters, a different focus, exciting visuals and some built-in tension as the protagonist and his team fight forest fires. It’s obviously made for kids, but there are a few moment in the film and its depiction of the joys of flying that should appeal to air-minded adults. There are enough details, jokes and visual elements to make the film interesting on a moment-to-moment basis, even though most of the characters don’t fly much above basic traits and temperament. Direction-wise, it’s flatter than the Pixar/Disney state-of-the-art, although some of the sequences do have a bit of a visual oomph to them. Otherwise, there really isn’t much more to say here: Destined to be forever seen in tandem with its predecessor, Planes: Fire & Rescue is good enough to be worth a watch, but not enough to stick in mind.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Counter-intuitively enough, Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings chooses to downplay its biblical material in favor of plausible political intrigues and natural phenomenon. So the Ten Plagues of Egypt become an overlapping set of environmental disasters, retreating waters from a tsunami makes the Red Sea disappear, and Moses is stuck in an impossible political situations following power-plays by other powerful characters. It’s an interesting choice (especially when compared against Noah, which seems to maximize the fantasy aspect of its own old-testament inspiration) that tells us much about the way religious subjects can be handled when they’re the focus of a multi-million-dollars effort involving hundreds of people. Does it work, though? At times, it certainly does: Scott’s success in period or future pieces has always been in creating a convincing atmosphere, and Exodus certainly has a few wondrous moments during which we entirely believe this recreation of historical Egypt, with its shiny pyramids and sprawling cities. It’s also hard to go wrong with the intensity of Christian Bale (as Moses) and Joel Edgerton (as Rameses II), alongside such notables as Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Still, that’s not a whole lot to satisfy, especially given the subject matter. While the Ten Plagues sequence is a highlight, the Red Sea sequence seems a bit lacking as a spectacle, and the choppy narrative strives for complexity while producing either confusion or boredom. For Scott, it does feel like Kingdom of Heaven all over again, with a lengthy running time hinting at missed opportunities, either at a shorter or longer duration. A lot of efforts and energies were spent making this film, and it seems like such a shame that it doesn’t rise much above the level of a mildly interesting one.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Chris Rock is an incredibly gifted comedian, but his fiction output as a writer/director has been disappointing so far: Head of State and I Think I Love my Wife are both OK without being spectacular, and it took Good Hair, a documentary, to showcase his talents as a filmmaker. Fortunately, Top Five is a strong new entry in his filmography, a down-to-the-streets romance with occasional moment of lunacy, a few great performances and a warm fuzzy feeling. The premise smells of autobiography, as a comedian feeling unmoored by commercial success rediscovers his roots over a hectic day. And while this film is definitely Rock’s show, he surrounds himself with a steady stream of cameos, hilarious short performances and enough quotable material to last a while. The chemistry he shares with co-star Rosario Dawson is remarkable, as she gets one of her best roles in years. Filled with laughs, spiced with wit and never empty of real emotions, Top Five feels like the film closest to Rock’s best comic persona so far.
(In French, On TV, March 2015) What a dull, dull movie. It shouldn’t have been that way, especially considering that it melds social issues with military heroics. The true story of the first black master diver in the US Navy, Men of Honor features Robert de Niro (as a crusty instructor) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (as the first black master diver), each of them doing their best but never quite giving life to the roles. Much of the script is strictly by-the-numbers, its inspiring story ill-served by familiar dialogue and dramati situations. Men of Honor is not exactly a bad movie, but it’s almost instantly forgettable the moment the end credits roll. Or even before then, if my wandering attention is any guide.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) There’s a lot of potential in the premise and cast assembled by Seth MacFarlane for A Million Ways to Die in the West. As a modern-thinking man somehow stuck in the very dangerous old west, MacFarlane himself has a bit of charm (albeit maybe not enough for the entire role), and being surrounded by Charlize Theron (in the funniest, most relaxed role she’s had in years), Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson isn’t a bad deal. At times, some of the comic set-pieces are indeed very funny (none more so than the sequence in which the title is explained), and some of the character work by actors such a Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman is pretty nice. Unfortunately, MacFarlane’s worst comic instincts often get the best of his better ones. Often crude, vulgar and tasteless, A Million Ways to Die in the West seems intent on wasting great visuals (it does look like a western) and tons of potential into dumb jokes that are more repellent than daring. It feels long, scattershot and doesn’t even have the superficial thematic depth that MacFarlane’s previous Ted did. Unfortunately, no amount of cameos, slight chuckles, ridiculous situations or blatant anachronisms can quite tie up the film’s lack of direction, inconsistent pacing and distasteful humor.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) Most films are maddening because they fail, but The Hunt is infuriating on purpose. It tells, in painful details, what happens in a small Danish community when a kind and quiet man is falsely accused of exposing himself to a child. The ostracism and violence that follows feels all-too-real, as is the protagonist’s decent in a kind of madness when everyone leagues against him. Mads Mikkelsen is splendid in the lead role, his good social standing being destroyed scene after scene as other decide to make an example out of him. For the viewer, there’s real frustration in seeing a small childish fib become bigger, emboldened by adults rushing to judgement. Under director Thomas Vinterberg’s clinical, down-to-Earth direction, the film is designed to make viewers grit their teeth and sigh helplessly at the screen. As a result, no one should be surprised to find that the film gets great reviews… but that few people would be willing to see it a second time.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) I will always have a soft spot for visually-sumptuous martial arts movies, and at first glance The Grandmaster seems to fit the category. A romanced account of the life of legendary martial artist Ip Man, this is a film that reaches back in relatively recent Chinese history to present a romanced biography that just happens to be filled with beautiful moments and many, many fights. At first glance, this seems like an easy sell. Unfortunately, there are a few disconnects in The Grandmaster, or at least the Americanized version I saw: The fights are beautiful (the opening gang fight in the rain is particularly impressive, and so it another fight set during winter near a train.) and the story has moments in which it is compelling, but the film as a whole feels long, disconnected, often-incomprehensible and maybe even focused on the wrong person when the story of Gong Er seems even more fascinating. Tony Leung certainly is credible in the lead role, as is Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. Writer/Director Wong Kar-wai does great work in short bursts, but what I’ve seen (allowing for the usual butchery of americanized versions as handled by the Weinsteins) struggles to present a unified experience or even a coherent entertainment experience. Too bad, because the best moments of the film could feature in a martial arts anthology sequence.
(Video on Demand, March 2015) I have a bit of a fondness for films in which exotic afflictions are used for thrilling effect. (See; Faces in the Crowd; Memento) Before I Go to Sleep starts by describing the plight of a woman who loses her memory every night, only remembering events from long-ago. Every morning, she reads notes to orient herself; every morning, her husband reassures her; every morning, she discovers who she was. But, of course, some clues accumulate suggesting that what she is told to remember isn’t what really happened to her… and the thrills begin. Who is her husband? Does she have a son? Is the doctor she’s seeing without her husband’s knowledge there to help or hurt her? So many questions to be answered during a delirious third act! Nicole Kidman isn’t bad as the protagonist and Mark Strong is his usual menacing self, but it’s Colin Firth who turns in the most remarkable performance with a somewhat unusual turn for him. Rowan Joffé’s direction has a few stylish moments and if the story is wild enough to compensate for odd turns of logic, the film does suffer from a bit of a middle-third lull and some late-movie clichés. Still, given that Before I Go to Sleep had a fairly low profile in North America, it’s most likely going to be a pleasant surprise for fans of the two lead actors, and offer a reasonably competent late-night thriller for audiences with low expectations.
(On TV, March 2015) There’s an entire sub-genre of time-traveling romances by now, and few of them actually make any sense on any rigorous level. The Lake House is among the more ludicrous of them, as a fantastical mailbox allows for a man and a woman separated by two years to somehow carry forward an epistolary romance. The premise doesn’t make sense (and I’d urge you not to contemplate it any longer than necessary), but that doesn’t mean that the film is bereft of small pleasures. Keanu Reeves still isn’t much for showing emotions, but he’s not entirely badly cast as the lead. (Although my memories of his disastrous turn in Sweet November may be too recent to offer any kind of non-biased assessment.) Meanwhile, Sandra Bullock is steady-as-she-goes in a rather undemanding role. Much of the film’s effectiveness depends on whether you can simply respond to the star-crossed recipe and stop trying to find ways around their predicament. If you can, there are a few sweet scenes here and there, most notably a tour of the city two years apart or a lost book finding its way back. Would I be trying to reach for a deeper exploration of genre, I would probably use The Lake House as an example of way in which a familiar SF genre premise (transmission of information backward through time) is exploited non-rigorously by romance in order to illuminate a far more emotional premise (that is; lovers separated by insurmountable obstacles) without regard to the extrapolation techniques of hard-core genre fiction. While that mechanism may drive SF genre fans crazy, it will work far better for Romance fans, because their expectations are being fulfilled. Much in the same way than in a letter, sender and receiver have to be aligned…
(In French, On TV, March 2015) I’m surprised to find out that I don’t dislike Rocky Balboa as much as I expected to. After all, I went in the film with a number of prejudices and shortcomings: I don’t particularly like Sylvester Stallone, I don’t have any special affection for boxing, my memories of the Rocky series (of which this is the sixth entry) are fuzzy to the point of uselessness, I dislike the trend of reviving old franchises and couldn’t make sense of this film’s premise, in which Rocky is brought out of retirement and improbably goes head-to-head with a top-notch boxer. What’s the point of this Rocky Balboa, then? But as it turns out, the result is decently entertaining without being overly compelling. The premise is still far-fetched, asking us to believe in a quasi-sixtysomething boxer holding his own against a much younger opponent. But the film acknowledges its own absurdity, dwells on the age of its protagonist and doesn’t exactly hand him anything but a moral victory. There’s a little bit of thematic depth regarding the irresistible lull that drives men out of retirement, and reconciliation between father and son. So it is that, even with everything running against it, Rocky Balboa ends up being a decent film firmly in the underdog tradition of the series. Viewers watching the European-French dub may get some extra entertainment value in hearing how some familiar English idioms are translated.
(On TV, March 2015) I would be far more impressed with this movie had I not seen Mad Men’s entire run: Tales of fifties suburban desperation can only be told so many ways, after all, and while Revolutionary Road truly goes to the limit in arguing about the way the conventional American ideals of a suburban house, a good job and two-point-five kids destroy free spirits, the film does feel like a big plate of reheated leftovers. (At this point, I’d be far more interested in movies arguing about the advantages of conventional suburban living than the good-old tortured-artist take on how many people are being just boring.) This being said, I may not warm up to the film’s depressing subject matter, but can’t help but appreciate the good acting performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes’ precise direction, or a script finely attuned to small nuances. It’s an exceptionally well-made film –too bad it’s successful at something I don’t enjoy at all.
William Morrow, 2011, 1056 pages, US$35.00 hc, March 2015
If I’m to remember anything about Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, it’s going to be that this is the book that turned me off reading fiction for nearly a year.
Let me explain.
I’m writing this review roughly a year after reading Reamde. I had the best intentions of writing a review shortly after reading the book, but life happened. Now that I have a few spare moments to go through my review backlog, what’s become obvious to me is that in the months since I’ve read Reamde, I’ve read only two novels, and one of them was a beta-read for a friend. (The other? Andy Weir’s The Martian, which gave me motivation to read and review again.)
With a lead-up like this, you’d be justified to expect a scathing denunciation of Reamde as something along the lines of the end of fiction as we know it, an affront to genre fiction, or a reader-killer. Otherwise, how else to justify how someone like me, who could reliably knock off 200–300 books per year, spent the twelve months post-Reamde barely scraping by reading half a dozen books?
The answer is wholly external to Reamde, of course. A child. A wife. A house. A job. A renewed interest in movies accompanied by a checkbox-ticking intent to catch up on those must-see films. It’s easy to form a habit in which reading is relegated to a distant runner-up position once everything else has been settled. Except, of course, that nothing is ever settled.
Still, I’m not entirely absolving Reamde. Because, more than once during the time I spent reading it, I caught myself thinking “that’s it, after this novel I can take a break”. At 1192 pages, this isn’t just a novel: it’s a trilogy contained between two covers, a modern epic published as a single unit.
Or it would be if it actually had something to say.
Because while The Lord of the Rings in its uncut director’s form runs for nine hours and change, that’s still less than an average season of your usual TV network show. (A single season of Elementary, to name one of the rare shows that I watch, will take you roughly 17 hours from beginning to end.) But take a look at the overall story and tell me if the TV show season is denser with material than the movie trilogy. Of course it isn’t. There are a lot character-building moment and scene-to-scene material in TV shows, but the overall plot movement can be glacial. So it is with Reamde’s pacing and overall content, which expands to 1192 pages thanks to intricate exposition and a damnable absence of editing, but doesn’t quite amount to much more than a TV series in the end.
It starts semi-promisingly near Seattle, as a young man sees the content of his laptop encrypted and locked by a nasty piece of ransomware. Unfortunately for him, what’s on the laptop is of crucial interest to a branch of the Russian mob, and they don’t play around. Before long (actually, no, after long), they kill the young man, kidnap his girlfriend (who’s the real protagonist of the story) and jump on a plane to China, where they hope to be able to identify and inflict a lot of pain to the developers of the ransomware. This is all taking place on the periphery of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game, the details of which are explained in fastidious detail along the way.
By the time a normal novel would have had the time to wrap up at the 350th page or so, Reamde is not only just getting started, but pulls off an amazing coincidence that either breaks the novel or makes it. Because, you see, staying right next door to the ransomware developers is the world’s most hunted terrorist. As a confrontation goes wrong and an entire building blows up, that mastermind terrorist kidnaps our heroine and starts hatching a scheme to go back to Canada and sneak into the United States for his expected nefarious purposes. The rest of the novel is pretty much exactly that, with our heroine’s uncle (founder of the MMPORG) stepping in as a secondary hero. It’s a good thing that he also happens to own a vast resort, and has a past as a frontier-crossing drug-runner.
If your suspension of disbelief snapped somewhere during the preceding paragraph, then welcome to the world of the novel’s readers, whose sensibilities are somewhat blunted by the fact that it takes hundreds of pages of procedural detail before those elements are gradually revealed. Neal Stephenson writes long, as we know (most of his last few novels are physical door-stoppers, and his Baroque Cycle trilogy clocks in at a staggering 3300 pages) but with Reamde, his worst tendencies have exceeded the boundaries of acceptable info-dumping to become actual problems. The novel’s ludicrous plotting is only exceeded by its numerous lulls in which nothing happens.
Now comes the question: Is this a bad thing? After all, I did have a reasonably good time reading Reamde, even as I was cursing its length and pacing. I’m someone who audibly delights in info-dumping and excessive exposition. I’m often amused by authors who have the guts to go against the formula of good fiction (such as, ahem, hinging an entire plot on a freak coincidence half a world away), and my past reviews have shown that even when I don’t understand half of a Stephenson novel, I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But for the weeks I spent slogging through Reamde, I was also struck by the fact that, to put it bluntly, I don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m busy right now and for the foreseeable future, and my tolerance for the excesses of fiction has been eroded to nothing. I may watch a lot of movies, but I’m doing a lot of dishes (or research, or housekeeping, or cooking) during that time. My lifestyle, in other words, is not currently compatible with a lot of written fiction.
This is not going to be eternal. I’m not metaphorically burning my library and claiming that I’m done with the whole fiction shtick. I’m just recognizing that right now, I’m not a dedicated reader. This, I’ve been told, is fairly common for parents of small children, so I’m taking it with a grain of salt and telling myself that there is a time for everything.
But it took the gruelling experience of making it to the end of Reamde to give me a good hint that I didn’t have to push myself in reading if I didn’t feel like it. Stephenson, by being so verbose and meandering, has freed me in a way, by inoculating me against guilt if I didn’t pick up a book immediately afterward. After Reamde, I felt spent; done with fiction. The next few books I picked up were chunk-sized nonfiction, easy to pick up in separate unpredictable sittings. It would take The Martian, which I really wanted to read but didn’t want to spoil before the movie, to get me going again.
So, thank you Stephenson, I guess? Some people will find Reamde useful to prop up objects, protect themselves from attackers or keep the fireplace going for an hour or two. I’m more likely to remember it, perhaps unfairly, as the novel that sent me in a fiction sabbatical.
(On TV, March 2015) I’m actually paying a compliment to Blue Valentine when I say that I don’t ever want to see that movie again. As a romantic drama describing the beginning and the end of a relationship in excruciating detail, it more than fulfills its objectives. That it’s successful and heart-wrenching, however, doesn’t mean that it’s in any way pleasant or entertaining to watch. As a big montage jumping back in forth between the best and the worst moments of a relationship, Blue Valentine doesn’t miss an occasion to push and pull at the viewer, juxtaposing songs and dialogue lines to ironic effect and wallowing in massive emotional whiplash. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance clearly know what he’s doing, and the result is a raw and troubling film without heroes or winners. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are both exceptional in roles far removed from many of their other glossy performances (Gosling, especially, gets far from his idealised character in The Notebook, or his glossy-cool portrayal in Drive.) Alas, Blue Valentine revels in the kind of art-house aesthetics that reliably exasperate me: shaky-cam images (even when there are no reasons to shake the camera), too-close shots, gritty unpolished images, improvised dialogue… it’s a painful film to watch in more ways that the obvious subject matter. While Blue Valentine’s achievement is undeniable, so is a powerful drive to never have to go through it again.