(On Cable TV, May 2015) The good news with animated films is that imagination is the only limit to what wonders they can conjure. The bad news are that… sometimes, you end up with films as strangely conceived as Free Bird. That probably sounds harsher than this Reel FX Creative Studio film deserves: Free Birds is the kind of animated comedy that you can watch without too much trouble, just letting the jokes land where they can. But at some point, you have to take a look at the rather ugly turkey design (would it have killed the designer to at least nod in the direction of cuteness?), the ludicrous premise (turkeys go back in time to convince Americans not to eat them for thanksgiving), the obnoxious parallels between these imagined turkeys and real Native Americans and wonder –shouldn’t there be a better use of talent and resources than this particular project? Even for a family film, the issue of talking animals being massacred for food can’t be trivialized easily, and once you throw in time-travel (under the auspices of the President of the United States, no less) you can hear the suspension of disbelief buckling under the weight of the accumulated incoherencies. Still, Free Birds is neither painful nor dull: it may be an underachiever with weird notions, but it’s well-produced (the animation isn’t bad) and funny enough to please. But there’s something missing to it, and so it remains firmly in the B-tier of animated features.
(Video on Demand, May 2015) There is something fascinating and heartening in seeing J.C. Chandor’s evolution as a filmmaker. From the sterile boardrooms of Margin Call to the lonely ocean of All is Lost, Chandlor goes somewhere else entirely in tackling the problems of a circa-1981 New York heating businessman in A Most Violent Year. The title is deceptively apt, as our protagonist comes to realize what is required of him during a particularly brutal period in his life; attacked by rivals, spurred on by his merciless wife, besieged by police and unions, he reluctantly turns to the dark side in an effort to keep what he has worked hard to create. It’s a slow and low-key film, but one that is seldom boring or uninteresting: Oscar Isaac is splendid in the lead role, while Jessica Chastain is no less compelling as his connected wife. Chandor’s directing is far more self-assured than the static shots of Margin Call, but less gimmicky than the high-wire audacity of All is Lost: here, he’s clean, unobtrusive yet evocative. It all amounts to a kind of film seldom seen today, studying the compromise of a good man rather than the spectacles of an action thriller.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2015) It’s almost mind-boggling to me that there is such a thing as a firmly established sub-genre of teen comedies based on Shakespeare plays. In that context, She’s the Man isn’t much more than a wholly average entry, but it does have its moments. Based on Twelfth Night, it revolves around cross-dressing, as a frustrated soccer player finds no better plan than to pass herself off as a brother and take over his academic life. It’s an unlikely premise with a ludicrous execution, but it’s sporadically amusing: Amanda Bynes throws herself in her dual roles with gusto, ready to do just about anything to get a laugh. It doesn’t really matter that she’s never quite credible as a man; at some point, you just have to roll with the premise and accept that everyone else is convinced. Channing Tatum turns in an early comic performance as the romantic object of her affections. Must of the plot is based on comic misconceptions, misunderstandings, secret identities and such shenanigans –it all builds to a big spectacular public conclusion in which everything is explained to everyone’s relief. She’s the Man isn’t particularly witty, achieved or subtle, but it’s roughly the film it aimed to be, all slapstick and broad gags and updating Shakespeare to a modern context. Even a solid average in this Shakespeare-for-teens category makes for relatively enjoyable viewing.
(Youtube Streaming, May 2015) I’m… not sure what to think of this 31-minutes paean to Internet manias. Famously crowd-funded following a delirious mock-trailer that included Hitler (as the Kung-Führer), hackers, martial arts, VHS artifacts, dinosaurs and a cool eighties vibe, the full(er) version of Kung Fury is almost exactly much of the same. Blending whatever is deemed to be ironically cool into a mush of satire, special effects, one-lines, attitude and high camp, it’s made for online viewing and instant memetic distribution. On one hand, Kung Fury is good for a few laughs, bathroom entertainment and social media sharing. On the other, it’s not really that much more than the three-minute trailer (there’s a noticeable lull in the third quarter) and the mirror it reflects on what the Internet think is cool isn’t particularly flattering. Still, there’s a lot to admire in writer/director David Sandberg’s DIY moxie (it’s a special-effects-heavy film, and handled much of its production himself) and his incredible ability is tapping into the collective zeitgeist to the tune of 630,000$. Since the result is free to view, why not just enjoy it as a mindless pastime, and wish the best for Sandberg’s next effort?
(On TV, May 2015) Jamie Collet-Serra doesn’t have the name recognition of other directors, but a quick look at his short filmography already reveals a propensity for stylish thrillers with an element of pure madness –an insane twist, tortured plotting, preposterous revelations and/or a healthy helping of Liam Neeson. Neeson may not be in Orphan, but the film is otherwise right in line with his subsequent Unknown or Non-Stop. It’s, in some ways, a standard evil-child horror film: After a family adopts a young girl, they come to realize that the girl is evil beyond her years, and that they are all in danger. So far so good (albeit boo for the anti-adoption agitprop), except for the last-third twist, which turns the film gleefully insane even as it answers the objection “Gee, that’s an awfully precocious hellion!” The conclusion is purely out of slasher movies, but the rest of the film is generally well-executed, with enough thrills and portentous gloom to keep things interesting. Isabelle Fuhrman is fantastic as the pint-sized antagonist, whereas Vera Farmiga (who can be unremarkable at times) here scores a gripping performance. CCH Pounder also makes an impression, even though her role isn’t much more than a disposable expositionary device. Orphan may be striking because of its twist, but it’s competently made and while it’s not destined to be a classic, it’s a good-enough thriller/hybrid, the likes of which we should see more often.
(On TV, May 2015) The 1998 Three Musketeer follow-up The Man in the Iron Mask is still worth a look for a variety of reasons. The first may be seeing the Three Musketeers at an older age, continuing the oft-portrayed legend at a time where they are disillusioned, ready to pass the torch to another generation and maybe even rebel against the King. The historical re-creation is lovely –but don’t watch it for a historical lesson, though. The plot, adapted from a literary source, is also a bit more surprising than the usual Hollywood historical film. Then there are the actors, now almost inconceivably younger: Leonardo Di Caprio has an interesting dual role, while Gabriel Byrne, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gérard Depardieu make for great musketeers. While The Man in the Iron Mask starts slowly and could have use a little more buckling of the swashes, it has an acceptable amount of adventure, twists and character development. I’m fond of the line “I’m a genius, not an engineer” (better in French: “Je suis un génie, pas un ingénieur”) and I liked spending some time in that period of history. I wasn’t expecting much from the film, though, and being happy about the result doesn’t mean that I’m enthusiastic about it.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I don’t quite understand this trend of demystifying legends, offering “the real story” behind fantastical tales or sucking all the fun and excitement out of time-proven tales. Hercules hops on this bandwagon (see Robin Hood, Exodus, etc.) by telling audiences about the Hercules behind the legend, presenting a mercenary who’s only too happy to let the legend of his twelve labours get him hired by rich clients. What follows is a historical epic absent of magic, almost bending itself out of shape to deliver epic battles without tipping into the supernatural. It doesn’t always work, as a not-really-zombies sequence shows. Still, the film coasts a long time on Brett Ratner’s unobtrusive direction and Dwayne Johnson’s pure charisma. As often happens, Johnson is fantastic even if the film around him isn’t: playing a mortal-but-extraordinary Hercules is the kind of thing that only Johnson can do in today’s action star pantheon. Otherwise, Hercules seems almost happy to undercut even its own claims to spectacle, and its bare-bones structure is so predictable that it leaves almost nothing to gnaw upon. So it ends up as a serviceable, but hardly memorable historical action film.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I’m not against craziness in my thrillers, even when the craziness is used as a substitute for logic or coherence. Grand Piano, in this instance, is a good example of what happens when flamboyance and go-for-broke audacity can compensate for a premise so unlikely as to defy suspension of disbelief. (It’s insane enough that even the villain’s henchman questions the plot.) Director Eugenio Mira goes all-out in trying to wring all possible excitement out of his script, and the result is a stylish thriller in which ambitious camera moves serve to obscure the nonsensical plot. There’s a lot of craft in the direction (early shots have two or three narrative points established in the same image), and the direction seems to get crazier as the film advances. Elijah Wood makes for a decent protagonist, as a concert pianist threatened with fatal retribution if he plays a single false note. Meanwhile, John Cusack lies in the shadows as the antagonist, literally calling the shots in a full concert hall and adding another antagonist role to his filmography. Grand Piano is a short film (excluding the credits, it barely inches past the 75-minutes mark) but it races through its plot points at such a dizzying speed that the flaws of the film seem less consequential. People most likely to respond favorably to Grand Piano include those who don’t mind a bit of style in their otherwise ludicrous genre exercises – I found myself liking the film a great deal more than I should, but then again I’m fond of thrillers that grab on to unusual premises and milk it to their fullest extent. In other words, I’m pretty happy with Grand Piano, a film with unexpected rewards that proves that maximalist execution can go hand-in-hand with a crazy premise.
(Video on Demand, May 2015) My favourite vice is curiosity, and so there was no way I could stare at the Fifty Shades of Grey new entry in the video on-demand menu and not, eventually, succumb to the temptation of seeing what the fuss is about. Take the hype, the controversies, the tut-tutting think-pieces away and focus on the film; what’s on screen? As it turns out, not much. There is about twenty minutes of plot in Fifty Shades of Grey, stretched over an oft-exasperating two hours. The story couldn’t be more basic if it tried: a young innocent girl meeting a rich handsome man, and then the push-and-pull of “will they?” Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan do the best they can with their wish-fulfilment characters, and they don’t really embarrass themselves. Obviously, the domination/submission aspect of the story is the big avowed draw here, as the protagonist quickly get in bed and then spend the rest of the film arguing about their different conceptions of their relationship. At best, Fifty Shades of Grey can be funny, skillful and moderately intriguing (the boardroom negotiation scene is as good as it gets, although I kept wondering how they could read anything in that low light.) Alas, those flashes of interest are rare: Much of the film is a fairly dull affair not just despite the subject matter, but because of it. As with most sexual fetishes, domination games tend to feel silly or boring if you’re not tempted by them, and so Fifty Shades of Grey’s interest grinds to a halt every time the characters step into The Red Room, or as artificial complications just push the ending further away. The film does get extra points for an unexpected finale by the usual romantic standards, although that’s mitigated considerably by the knowledge that this is just the first film in a trilogy. From what I read from the book (which wasn’t much, exasperated as I was with the writing), the film seems to be making the best out of weak material –proof that Hollywood doesn’t always ruin things.
(On TV, May 2015) The weirdest franchises can emerge from Hollywood’s idea factory, and so what we have here is some kind of “museum comes to life, allowing historical characters to interact” CGI-fest, along with actors having up playing grander-than-life personas. This second Night at the Museum is a bit weirdly structured, with Ben Stiller’s protagonist somehow selling a company in order to keep prolonging the franchise. Oh well; it’s not as if we’re really watching the film for its finer plot points as much as Robin Williams once again having fun as Teddy Roosevelt, or Amy Adams really playing it up as Amelia Earheart, complete with snappy period dialogue. The rest of the film is almost entirely based on sight-gags, a copious use of CGI and plot mechanics aimed at kids. It sort-of-works, even though nothing really stick in mind except for Adams’ performance. There should be more to say about the film, but somehow there isn’t.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) Complaining that college fraternity comedy Neighbors is too frat-boyish is entirely missing the point of the film and yet… it may still be a worthwhile point. As someone with fresh memories of taking care of a baby, I expected to feel more sympathy for the protagonist couple of this film, as they try to live next door to a fraternity house with raucous parties. But there’s a limit to the respectability of a protagonist when he’s played by Seth Rogen: weed addiction, profanity and raunchiness usually follow in close succession, and his performance as a flawed father in Neighbors is no exception. (I had to restrain myself from muttering a few instances of “Bad parenting! Bad parenting!”) I’m not going to pretend that the film isn’t funny: Both Rose Byrne and Zac Efron get a chance to earn theirs laughs and the escalation of absurdity between the protagonists and the frat-house denizens gets steadily more ludicrous. This is quality comedy, sometimes sloppy in its details but dynamic from beginning to end. For all of the reprehensible humor of the film, most characters get a few more introspective moments than strictly warranted and there’s a bit of thematic content about impending adulthood running through the film… all without ruining the often go-for-broke comedy. The very thing that makes Neighbors annoying (the irresponsibility of its so-called protagonists) is exactly what makes the film a bit deeper than expected. While it won’t become a classic, Neighbors should, at least, earn a grudging respect, even when it dips a bit too deeply into gross dumbness.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) Writer/director duo Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard previously collaborated on You’re Next, a pure genre romp that showed that there’s still life in the home-invasion horror film as long as it’s competently made. This intention seems just as strong here with The Guest, seemingly a throwback to the kind of B-movie from the eighties in which a stranger comes to town… bringing uncommon skills with him. Dan Stevens is compelling as the mysterious young man with secrets of his own; he’s instantly credible in a fairly intense role far removed from his usual persona. He’s the anchor of The Guest, and the film wouldn’t work if he didn’t nail his role as perfectly. He creates the situations to which other characters react, and by the time we’re down to a third-act horror-house suspense sequence, the film has fulfilled its own goals perfectly. (Although you have to like films with a lengthy list of innocent victims in order to enjoy this one.) Like You’re Next, The Guest is fast, cheap, self-aware and firmly in control: it’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for well-made genre films.
(In theaters, May 2015) I’ve been a fan of the Fast and Furious film series since the first 2001 installment (even though my faith was sorely tested by the second film), but I never expected its seventh installment to be so purely enjoyable, even as it features a poignant emotional send-off to a fallen star. Series lead Paul Walker died during the production of the film, and part of Furious Seven’s impossible mandate was to find a way to deliver hugely entertaining action sequences while acknowledging Walker’s final departure. The first part of the mission is obviously achieved: Furious Seven contains bigger action sequences, a decent number of laughs, some innovative camera work (including cameras that move in-synch with people crashing through glass tables), decent villains, likable heroes and a decent amount of innovative stunts even in a series that seems to have done everything possible on four wheels. The action moves fluidly across continents, juggles several recurring characters and a few new ones, harkens back to its perennial theme of family and is just about everything one could wish for in a summer blockbuster. But no one expected the film to be able to deliver such an effective good-bye to Paul Walker, who is last seen here literally taking a fork in the road to stay safely with his new family, accompanied by a montage and a sad song meant to make even the least emotional members of the audience get a huge lump in their throat. It works far better than even the most cynical pundits will allow: Walker was in many ways the heart of the series, and Furious Seven couldn’t have given him a better or more appropriate send-off. Incredibly enough, it doesn’t feel manipulative or crass: it feels like the end of the road, even knowing that the series will have another sequel in two or three years. Well done.
(In theaters, May 2015) Few movies exemplify the mid-2010s blockbuster movie trend as thoroughly as Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s the apogee-so-far of the superhero movie, it’s practically designed to be the kind of film to save movie theaters from bankruptcy and/or irrelevance and it’s crammed with characters, action sequences and special effects. You don’t get any more “tent-pole film” than this sequel to 2012’s massively successful The Avengers, and the onslaught of commercial tie-ins on TV makes it look as if the film trailer is playing three times per hour. Interestingly enough, Avengers: Age of Ultron is even a competent movie: It juggles a dozen characters with some ease, meddles with current-zeitgeist issues of technology run amok, revolves around exceptionally dynamic action sequences, benefits from good banter and leaves viewers with a sense of upbeat progress. Robert Downey Jr is still a delight as Tony Stark, Chris Evans is still as good as Captain America, and Jeremy Renner gets a lot more to do here. Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in many ways, a better film than its predecessor. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have, and that’s the element of pleasantly exceeded expectations. Marvel Studios has defied tremendous odds in bringing its comic-book universe to the big screen, but as far as the whole “team of superheroes vanquish impossible threat” thing is concerned, it’s been done. So it is that while Avengers: Age of Ultron may be fun and fizzy, it does feel like a repeat, and a harbinger of things to come as something like thirty comic-book movies are scheduled to appear on-screen in the next five years: the melodramatic conventions that sustain comic-books only have a limited shelf life on-screen, and the lack of character development in those films can’t forever be papered over with reboots or fake promises of change (like the Hydra/SHIELD plotline, so promising at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and yet so casually dismissed here). I did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I’m wondering how long such movies can remain the flavor of the moment.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I may be overthinking this film, but there’s an element in The Family Man that pushes this so-called feel-good film straight into existential horror, and I can’t shake it off. This is, in simplest terms, a film about a successful businessman revisiting his life had things gone differently. So, rather than keep haunting the expensive apartments and boardrooms of Manhattan as a single man, he is magically spirited to an alternate suburban existence, with wife and kids and a somewhat dreary job as a tire salesman. He does, as expected, learn a powerful lesson in time for the end. Except that by that time, he has befriended a number of interesting people, including his adorable daughter who understands his parallel-life predicament and is delighted when her “daddy is back” late in the story. So far so-good so-expected so-enjoyable except for the ending, in which our businessman becomes again his businessman self and goes back to his ex-girlfriend to rekindle an old romance and… we realize that the adorable daughter (and siblings) has been erased from existence. Ugh. I don’t expect most people to have this gut-shot reaction: The Family Man is, after all, built as a solidly mainstream comedy, as predictable as it is safe. I don’t think that viewers are supposed to probe all that deeply into it, or do anything but laugh at Nicolas Cage’s antics as he fumbles around with Tea Leoni. Still… for a film that’s supposed to be unobjectionable Christmas family comedy, I do have a significant objection.