(On Cable TV, April 2015) I don’t think you could come up with a more generic thriller premise than The Equalizer if you tried: A retired special-ops specialist takes revenge on mobsters for putting a young friend in the hospital. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Do you really have any doubt that our protagonist will achieve his ultimate revenge? Faced with such a generic plot, The Equalizer can only distinguish itself through competent execution. Fortunately, it can depend on Denzel Washington to bring his usual intensity to the role, and on director Antoine Fuqua to deliver a dollop of style along the way. The Equalizer may be strikingly unoriginal, entirely linear and far too violent, but after a slow first act, it escalates the tension steadily, showcases Washington’s steely resolve and delivers the bloody vengeance as expected. The last act (set within a home-improvement store) seems far too long if you’re not entirely invested in the kind of carnography in which a dozen opponents get dispatched in various ways. But it’s not sloppy, slapdash or accidental: The Equalizer is exactly the kind of movie it wants to be, and it ought to satisfy those who are looking for exactly that.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) I happened to see Earth to Echo, a found-footage Science-Fiction film for young teenagers, at the end of a week where I’d seen one other dull YA SF film and two other found-footage films. To say that I wasn’t well-predisposed toward yet another found-footage film or YA SF, would be an understatement. But there is a bit of charm running through Earth to Echo, enough so to forgive the clichés and trend-hopping. It’s about three young teenagers, spending their last day together tracking down a mysterious signal that has taken over their cell phones. The signal leads to relics that assemble to form something much more alien than they expected. Shot through a variety of cameras provided by one of the YouTube-addicted protagonists, Earth to Echo does manage to settle down into a nice narrative rhythm, as the young actors get more comfortable in the roles and the story gets a bit more urgent after the introduction of government agents running at cross-purposes with the group. It’s obviously aimed at younger teenagers (meaning that adults won’t find as much substance to chew on), but the film does manage to grasp the intense but ephemeral nature of teenage friendships, presents a preposterously cute owl-like alien creature, and director Dave Green occasionally builds rushes of adrenaline fit to forgive the generic and predictable plot. Earth to Echo doesn’t play too long at slightly less than 90 minutes. As Science Fiction, it’s basic… but as a small-scale thriller for younger teenagers, it certainly meets its objectives.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) There’s been a recent glut of Young Adult Science Fiction movies adaptations lately, and while The Giver is of a slightly-older nineties-novel vintage than Divergent, The Hunger Games and its ilk, it has so many points of similarity that it courts generic repetitiveness. Here again, we have a young person with singular talents discovering The Truth behind their too-perfect post-post-apocalyptic society, then rising up against the established order in order to upset the status quo. Same story, same basic credibility problems, same obvious attempts to manipulate teenage audiences. Not gaining points for originality, The Giver at least gets a few in terms of execution: there’s something cheap but interesting in the way the black-and-white of the film’s first few moments gradually lets color in, and director Philip Noyce is enough of a veteran to have a steady hand in presenting the action. Still, that’s not quite enough to rescue The Giver from occasional ennui. It’s not meant to be particularly smart. Given the mediocre nature of its premise, it’s surprising to see an actress like Meryl Streep in a matriarch role, playing alongside Jeff Bridges (and Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift in an unexpected small role). Still, The Giver has the somewhat unusual daring to feature a baby in peril for a long while, and that baby upstages Streep every chance it gets –The Giver goes heavy on life-affirming clichés, but The Baby In Peril may raise the stakes a bit too high compared to the rest of the film. Still, for all of its affirmed averageness, The Giver manages to score one or two good lines, plays with ideas without committing to them, and concludes on the kind of life-affirming notions that can mollify even the most bored reviewer.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) Taken along Last Days on Mars and Interstellar, Europa Report marks a small trend of space-exploration science-fiction, relatively harder-edged than the usual Hollywood pap. Overcoming the disadvantage of being presented as a found-footage film, Europa Report tells the story of a doomed expedition to Europa. (This is not a spoiler, as we know early on that Something Terrible has happened.) Much of the film can be described as procedural hard-SF, as we see, from cameras used to document the expedition, the various dangers and events of space exploration. This is a relatively near-future film, meaning that there are no extravagant scientific breakthroughs on display. Intensely credible in its technical details, the film accumulates a lot of credibility during its relatively slow first half, which helps a lot when the film does take a step into the unknown toward the end. Unlike The Last Days on Mars, however, Europa Report is a rarity: A film that confronts the deadly unknown not as a source of dread, but as potential for wonder at the universe. The conclusion could have been presented as a downbeat horror-show but becomes uplifting, enigmatic and awe-inspiring. Director Sebastián Cordero has managed quite a bit out of a relatively low budget. While it may not be a perfect film (the pacing is an issue, the characters are a bit fuzzy, the script can’t get away from some obvious sequences and there’s a nagging feeling that the film is one Big Idea away from complete success), Europa Report will probably become one of those oft-referred films, especially by SF fans bemoaning the lack of realistic examples of the form.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) Once you get past the pseudo-intellectual nonsense and fancy vocabulary, one of the basic questions to be answered by movie criticism is this: Has this movie made me happier than I was before watching it? It’s not a universally-applicable test (I’m not seriously proposing that all great movies are feel-good movies) but it’s one of the big ones. And it gives me some pleasure to report that among Chef’s best qualities is that it’s a movie that made me happy. It’s a bubbly, charming, energetic-but-relaxed comedy about food, relationships and criticism as a path to self-improvement. The plot isn’t exactly tight, but it is about a chef forced to make life-altering changes in the wake of a disastrous restaurant review and ensuing social media kerfuffle. From Los Angeles to Miami and back again via New Orleans and Austin, Chef offers a loose comedy with quirky characters, up-to-the-moment techno-social commentary, fantastic food imagery and an unapologetic upbeat ending. Jon Favreau not only stars, but produces, writes and directs the film, which raises all sorts of fascinating questions about vanity projects with valid artistic intentions: It’s hard to see this tale of chef reinventing himself by going to his roots and avoid comparison with a filmmaker with three massive Hollywood movies under his belt going back to his independent film origins. (Note to Favreau: I’ll take one fresh Chef over ten reheated Cowboys versus Aliens.) Not only is Favreau reaffirming his directing credentials with a lower budget (the film is a breeze to sit through), but his credibility is current enough to be able to attract an astonishing cast in supporting roles from Robert Downey Jr to Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman to Oliver Platt. Sofia Vergara has a rare non-irritating role, while John Leguizamo turns in one of his most likable performances to date and ten-year-old Emjay Anthony features strongly. The script may not be fined-tuned (the episodic structure can feel disjointed and the ending, as positively-happy as it is, feels abrupt) but it hits a likable tone strongly supported by a peppy soundtrack. Chef is one of those (too-rare) films that make you happy, make you feel alive, make you feel as if everything is fine with cinema.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) Twister remains, even nearly twenty year later, one of my big fond memories of mid-nineties movie-going (I bought the Blu-Ray version a while ago… I really should watch it again) and tornadoes are a natural fit for big-screen disaster movies… so why has it taken eighteen years for another big-screen tornado movie to come along? No matter; Thanks to the progress of computer-generated imagery, we can now have a technically-impeccable tornado disaster movie… directed as a teenager-centric found-footage film. But don’t lose all hope yet: For all of the found-footage overexposure and exasperating concessions to the teen audience, Into the Storm does manage a handful of great action sequences. Despite the bouncy subjective camera, the film is technically polished, and the tornadoes are vividly rendered with a loving amount of detail. (Keep your eyes open for a bovine homage to Twister.) Some of the tornado sequences are eye-popping, and the mayhem will give your home theater system a run for its money. What’s not so fortunate is how the story is wrapped around a bunch of teenagers and a storm-chasing team: the story quickly becomes banal and contrived whenever humans are talking on-screen, and while director Steven Quale does cover the essential bases, he never elevates it above the basic wham-factor of seeing a bit of tornado destruction on-screen. The found-footage gimmick gets a bit shaky toward the end. The sense of anticipation of the approaching storm isn’t established as strongly as it should, and the climax does feel like an anticlimax after seeing fire tornadoes and colliding jetliners earlier in the film. Still, I’m not exactly disappointed: the film does deliver on the essentials of its intentions, doesn’t run too long at barely 90 minutes and the story isn’t annoying despite its basic features. I can’t help but be fascinated by what’s now possible with special effects: Twister was, in 1996, a major tent-pole film that redefined special effects at a time when the field was embracing the new possibilities of CGI, while Into the Storm was, at best, just another mid-summer studio release with a budget half of its predecessor. So, essentially: if you’re in the mood for a man-against-nature thrill-ride, consider Into the Storm… but not before seeing Twister beforehand.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) I’m not sure why I’ve waited fifteen years before seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley. I’m not fond of stories in which the protagonist is a serial murderer, but there’s a bit more to this film than simply rooting for an anti-hero. Part of the attraction now, of course, is seeing five actors at the beginning of their career, from Jude Law’s magnetic presence to Matt Damon’s versatile lead performance, to Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow in young ingénue roles, to an early good turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The other big asset of the film, of course, is the period detail. An impersonation thriller taking place amongst Americans living in late-1950s Italy, The Talented Mr. Ripley can be, at its best, an immersion in a romanticized time and place. It only becomes darker and more thrilling after a (too) leisurely prologue, then drags on a touch too long as it places its protagonist in ever-more desperate circumstances, all the way to a heartbreaking final act of violence. Slickly directed by Anthony Minghella from a now-classic novel by Patricia Highsmith, it’s a thriller that plays with questions of identity, aspirations, repression and the nature of affection. It’s lovely and ugly, with good tension and complex plot engines. The Talented Mr. Ripley has aged gracefully, and remains just as good today as it must have been sixteen years ago.
(On TV, April 2015) I’m usually a good audience for romantic comedies and/or anything featuring Jennifer Lopez, so imagine my disappointment at my disappointment for this film. A fairy-tale recast in modern setting (i.e.; a Manhattan maid in disguise as a wealthy guest catches the eye of an up-and-coming politician, leading to romantic complications), Maid in Manhattan seems intent on self-destructing before it ends. It is, of course, about class issues… but doesn’t offer much in terms of criticism beyond a pat “work hard and you too can become part of (or marry into) the upper class.” It never properly convinces audience of the perfect match between the two leads. It doesn’t offer much to do for Jennifer Lopez, who seems to have been cast almost solely on the basis of finding an attractive Latina with name recognition. It meanders through a series of obligatory scenes whose point is painfully obvious even when they begin. Poor Ralph Fiennes seems to wander in the film, lost and confused as to what he’s doing there, never credible as a rising political star. Even Stanley Tucci is stuck in a caricature and can’t escape the irritating mediocrity of the result. By the time the stock ending is assembled out of the obvious plot-pieces, it feels more like a relief that the entire film is over more than any heartfelt affection for the reunited characters. Maid in Manhattan classifies as a comedy on the basis that it’s not much of a drama and certainly not a tragedy –but you’d be hard-pressed to find laughs here. Neither will you find anything else worth remembering.
(Video on Demand, April 2015) For a film that disappeared without traces from North American theaters, Last Knights has pretty good production values, and is almost interesting enough to stand on its own as something more than another take on the “47 Ronin” legend. There’s a bit of a spark in the premise, which posits (I think) a future-medieval society that avoids historical precedent while allowing for an appealing multi-racial cast and new iconography. Unfortunately, they don’t do anything with that idea other than justify the pseudo-medieval setting (no ancient artifacts, no mixture of technologies and customs, no bearings on the plot). There are a few twists and turns in the first act, at least until the 47 Ronin parallels become obvious. After that, it’s an assault-the-fortress caper film with a too-long coda. Clive Owen is instantly credible as the protagonist, while Morgan Freeman has a decent turn as his commander. Less happily, the film struggles to become more than just another generic fantasy vehicle: the action is shot blandly and with far too many quick cuts, whereas the color palette of the cinematography is often limited to the point of dullness. There isn’t much here to excite or astonish, and so while Last Knights avoid the worst pitfalls of what could have been a Direct-to-Video effort, there isn’t much here to make it memorable.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) The Interview is no mere movie. It’s the one that earned the ire of North Korea, (allegedly) got Sony Studios hacked, got pulled from North American chain theatres, became a reference for the President of the United States of America and ended up released digitally as a hail-Mary attempt to recoup some of its production costs, eventually ending up as one of the top-grossing VOD release of all times (so far). What a strange fate for Yet Another Rogen/Franco Stoner Comedy taking vulgar pot-shots at respectable subjects. After Pineapple Express (crime thriller stoner comedy), Your Highness (Epic Fantasy stoner comedy) and This is the End (Post-Rapture stoner comedy), the results are familiar. Silliness meets the sublime as a Very Serious Topic (ie; the assassination of foreign dictators by the US government) is demolished through an endless parade of lurid, stupid, dumb and crude jokes. And yet… The Interview is surprisingly entertaining. The friction between our hapless entertainment-TV host (James Franco, for once playing the goofball compared to Seth Rogen’s more serious news producer) and the important geopolitical assignment he receives is at the root of quite a few laughs, but the good-natured stupidity of the characters (“The tiger is wearing night-vision goggles?!?”) is enough to carry the film. Franco is surprisingly droll (making the most out of his persona’s sexual ambiguity), while Randall Park manages a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of “President Kim” and Diana Bang makes for a spirited regime representative / love interest. The Interview is directed with energy, featuring a terrific soundtrack and an ambitious cinematography for a dumb comedy. It’s not a great movie, what with its occasional lulls, needlessly graphic violence and lowest-common denominator crude humor. But it’s surprisingly funny, and at times provocative in how it mixes low-brow humor with geopolitical issues. The Interview ends with fireworks, and stands on its own as a film that meets its intentions.
(On TV, April 2015) A surprisingly common failing of romantic comedies is the way they can twist and turn a fresh premise into nothing more than an ultra-conventional third act. So it is that the best thing about What Happens in Vegas –two mismatched characters forced into matrimony due to a series of laughable contrivances, and then trying to break out of it- is almost completely undone by a third act that could have been appended to just any other romantic comedy ever filmed. (This misdirection also applies to the setting as, despite the title, most of What Happens in Vegas actually happens in New York.) Still, it’s hard to be entirely ill-willed toward a film that does have a number of laughs, energetic performances and pleasantly absurd situations. Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher are pleasant enough as the lead couple (neither of them stepping away from their usual persona), whereas Lake Bell and Rob Corddry both do the best they can with the ingrate task of playing the friends (and expositionary appendages) of the protagonists. What Happens in Vegas itself isn’t much more than a mainstream time-waster (it’s easy to imagine a much edgier film based more or less on the same premise), but it’s innocuous and watchable without too much effort, which isn’t a bad thing as far as romantic comedies are concerned. Even the ones with interchangeable third acts.
Tor, 2014, 448 pages, $C31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0765331939
What Makes this Book so Great, by Jo Walton, isn’t much more than a collection of short pieces first published on tor.com. The common unifying theme to the series is that Walton isn’t trying to review new material as much as she’s re-reading books, forgoing an initial assessment to delve a bit more deeply into the qualities of the book being discussed. It’s a selection of pieces, with minimal visible editing—meaning that, unlike some other blog-to-book efforts offering selection, editing and contextualization, it doesn’t offer much more than what’s online (and arguably less, as you miss out on the blog comments, many of whom are mentioned in latter comments). It does, however, come with a new introduction, which explains why it’s worth re-reading books and is convincing enough to make you reconsider any previous stance of reading versus rereading.
What makes this book so great is, indeed, the passion for reading that Walton brings to her subject. While she approaches the book she rereads with initial sympathy, this doesn’t mean that she will let anything pass: She effortlessly logs significant complaints against major books, highlight flaws that may go unnoticed and grudgingly recognizes when he earlier self may have erred upon first read. Conversely, her enthusiasm about some books is contagious, and may populate your list of books to add to your reading list.
What Makes this Book so Great has a few highlights to offer. I was impressed by the book-by-book reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series (with which I’m familiar and could nod along) and Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (with which I wasn’t, and was almost convinced to pick up later). Individual essays worth reading include a discussion on the suck fairy, and so on. Throughout, Walton displays the omnivorous energy of a reader steeped deep into genre fiction, casually tossing off references that a small but dedicated number of readers will best appreciate. This isn’t a book for the casual crowd: it’s a book for those who have read SF since their teenage years and can talk knowledgeably about its various facets.
What makes this book so great is, in large part, because it (generally) replicates the typical convention experience of chatting with a highly knowledgeable genre reader or (specifically) hanging out with Jo Walton. As readers of these reviews know, I’m lucky to call Jo an acquaintance, and this book is what I mean when I say that Jo is usually the most interesting person in the room. Read it, and you’ll understand what great fun it is to discuss genre fiction with her. As much as I like Jo’s fiction, this is probably the book that best exemplifies who she is, with her quirks and passions and irrational dislikes and formidable insight. You can’t always go to a convention with Jo, but you can always grab this book and read it, which is good enough by itself.
What Makes this Book so Great may not be perfect: it’s often scattershot, idiosyncratic and makes reference to online material that requires readers to have internet access. Its pieces will obviously be of varying interest, depending on what books you have already read. But it’s a heck of a present for genre readers who are reasonably familiar with genre fiction from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century: It’s a portrait of a dedicated reason, a keen analyst and a generous fan. While I’m not convinced it has a readership outside the core SF&F genre crowd, it is (much like her Hugo-Award-winning novel Among Other) keenly targeted at this group. Well worth picking up, even if the material is already online.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) I liked the original Rio well enough, but wasn’t exactly asking for a sequel. But at a time where high-profile animated films usually beget sequels, here comes Rio 2 not trying too hard to justify its existence. The story gets predictably bigger (our rare songbird couple from the original film, now with kids, discovers an entire colony of their species in the Amazon) and leaves Rio entirely to go deep in nature, kicking up issues of rainforest deforestation. Add to that a bit of protagonist emasculation, a nemesis from the first film, musical antics from famous signers reprising their roles and you’ve got the makings of a serviceable sequel, although one that doesn’t exactly bring transcendence to the proceedings. It is colorful, music-filled and upbeat (the musical numbers are usually the highlight of the film), but to what end? Simply more of the same, loosely reprised… albeit surprisingly busy at times. Rio 2 is likely to be a hit with anyone who liked the first film (and I may pull the “mood” card here, saying that I wasn’t in the mood for more of the same.) but it’s not going to go beyond imitation. Not bad, but the time at which even a passable animated sequel was an event is now past.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) At the time of Anger Management’s release, there was something a bit clever in casting Adam Sandler in the role of a meek man who is led by circumstances into assuming his innate aggression: Early-career Sandler exemplified a violent man-child comic persona, so much of Anger Management is spent waiting for the inevitable explosions. (After 2002’s Mr. Deeds, his persona would be softened to a gentler good-guy one.) To see him paired off with Jack Nicholson (who has spent much of his late career perfecting abrasive characters) is a further wonder. And, at times, Anger Management works: there are funny set-pieces, many showcase moments for Nicholson’s ability to be both unpleasant and compelling and Sandler navigates a fine edge between his early aggressive persona and his latter-day amiable everyday-man. Marisa Tomei is likable in a somewhat generic role, with fun performance in smaller roles from Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. (There are also more than a few celebrity cameos, as is often the case in Happy Madison-produced movies.) Where Anger Management gets in a bit of a mess, however, is in its messy collage of absurd contrivances, late-revealed conspiracy, attempts to link back to a childhood prologue and ultimate claim to be about something else than simple anger management. The last few minutes are a series of “Really? Really??” that don’t add much to the film, especially when its reason for existing is simply seeing Sandler face off with Nicholson –if the film’s poster could get that right, then why didn’t the script? Of course, Adam Sandler films aren’t exactly known for tight scripts and focused scenes – sometimes, it’s best to just enjoy the comic set-pieces and ignore the attempts at making it all mean something at the end.
(On TV, April 2015) Given the success of “Puss” in the Shrek films, this spin-off prequel was as inevitable as it was likely to be disappointing. Not all supporting comic characters have enough presence to sustain a full-length movie, and so Puss in Boots is largely forgettable despite Antonio Banderas’ vocals and the efforts of the Dreamworks Animation team. Part of the familiarity is the once-again approach in poaching modern storylines from fairy-tales: Here, there’s not much Puss in Boots and a lot of Humpty-Dumpty and Jack and the Beanstalk as the protagonist gets embroiled in a heist plot. (Thankfully, the links to the Shrek movies are very, very thin –not even the settings match.) It works sporadically, just well enough to earn continued attention throughout. Much of the rest is straight from the contemporary animated-movie framework: escalating action sequences, recognizable voice cast, spirited gags and conventional storytelling. Plus a big helping of cat-related jokes. But then again, originality doesn’t really pay in developing family-friendly animated films, especially if they don’t aspire (like Pixar often does) to thematic greatness. Thankfully, Puss in Boots is light on pop-culture references, stands up on its own as a non-Shrek movie and pairing off Banderas once again with Selma Hayek, even if only vocally, seems like the right thing to do. There may not be much to love in Puss in Boots, but there is enough to like.