(In French, on Blu-Ray, June 2015) One of the benefits of parenthood is the perfect justification to watch all sorts of good kids’ movies. So it is that I’m going through the Disney catalogue, picking up what I’d never seen due to being a self-important contrarian young adult at the time. Lilo & Stitch is one of the highest-profile Disney releases I had never seen, and watching the film now it’s easy to understand why it remains an evergreen reference: The Hawaiian look is distinctive, Stitch is a memorable creature (playing just right at the edge of what a dangerous protagonist should be in a Disney kid’s film), the use of Elvis-themed music is inspired (the end credit “Burning Love” cover is particularly spirited) and the thematic concerns about reconstituted families run deep. There’s a lot of humor (the visual gag in which a robot character retches bolts after hearing a particularly vile alien swearword still has me smiling), but real emotional depth as well, making the film worth a look beyond the hyperactive quality of Stitch himself. Lilo is a wonderful young heroine, and the blend of Science Fiction elements with more broadly comic or sentimental plot points is generally successful. The animation is splendid, with a successful integration of classic 2D drawing with 3D elements. Lilo & Stitch may have darker moments, but it’s ultimately a very likable film, and one that resists simplistic story elements. It endures just as well today than it did nearly fifteen years ago.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Blackhat is not a great film, but it’s interesting largely in how it tries to assimilate contemporary innovations in a standard thriller template. Sure, here we have a tainted protagonist trying to catch a bad guy before he wreaks more damage. But we also have sequences trying to portray computer hacking, delving deep into machines, whizzing along the bit-flow and trying to portray how bytes of information sent with evil intent can cause physical damage and human misery. It takes an audacious director like Michael Mann to even try that kind of stuff, and it’s also why, despite the film’s generally hum-drum impact, it’s worthy of a look. Fans of conventional thrillers should at least get basic satisfaction from the way the film moves around the world, pits a dangerous hero against an unknown opponent and delves a bit into information security minutia in-between the more conventional chases and gun battles. The I.T.-Security lingo sounds OK, but it matters more that Blackhat can benefit from Chris Hemsworth’s charisma, as well as good supporting performances by Viola Davis, Leehom Wang and Tang Wei. Never mind the leaps of logic in seeing the cyber-criminal protagonist suddenly become an action hero –the film is more realistic in its details than in its overall plotting. The end result is muddled, but there’s enough good in here to sustain interest.
(On TV, June 2015) Some good movies just slip by unseen, but the beauty of endless reruns is that sooner or later, they come back. So it is that I was able to catch up on old-fashioned thriller A Perfect Murder, adapted from classic Hitchcock thriller Dial M For Murder but more than good enough on its own. The first few minutes all pile up the mini-revelations, as a woman (a young-looking Gwyneth Paltrow) is revealed to be having an affair with a man who is further revealed (by her husband, no less) as being a career con artist who’s probably up to no good. A deal is made; money for murder for money, the husband paying the con man to get rid of his wife so that her inheritance can shore up his bad investments. It’s already twisted, but there’s more to come, with murder and suspense aplenty. Michael Douglas can play the wealthy heavy like no others, while Paltrow looks suitably vulnerable as the heroine of the film. Director Andrew Davis keeps things moving, the film has that pleasant mid-nineties sheen and the suspense sequences do have a classic quality to them despite the odd eruption of blood. It amounts to a decent time, perhaps a bit overlong but not outrageously so. A Perfect Murder remains a thriller in the classical mode, and that’s not an inconsequential advantage at a time where we seem to have moved a bit too much beyond the classical.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Kingsman was billed as “Kick-Ass for the spy movie” and that did nothing to put me in a good mood given how I disliked Kick-Ass’ mixture of cheap cynicism, crudeness and hypocrisy. It felt aimed at a far younger audience, and I feared that Kingsman would more or less go that same way. But while Kingsman does have its own crude excesses in presenting its chav-becomes-suave plotline (oy, that final joke), it’s also gleefully fun and honestly enamoured with the material it emulates: It’s instructive to compare the film with 2002’s “hipper Bond” xXx and how eloquent Kingsman can be in promoting the classical gentlemen-spy archetype. (Try not to quote “Manners maketh man” the next time you proudly pick up a good umbrella.) Director Matthew Vaughn knows what kind of film he’s building, and the result is far more satisfying than his own previous Kick-Ass. It certainly helps that the film can rely on Colin Firth as the ultimate gentleman spy. Firth, not previously known for anything resembling an action role, here gets two splendid action sequences –they may be heavily enhanced by blurry special effects, but he looks and acts the part well enough to convince. The simulated-single-shot church scene is regrettably ultra-violent, but it’s also an anthology piece for a very specific kind of action mayhem. Taron Egerton is remarkable as the lead protagonist, but the film is also filled with interesting supporting performances by Samuel L. Jackson (having fun at the expense of the usual villainous clichés), Sofia Boutella as an enabled enforcer and Mark Strong in a welcome non-antagonist role. The editing and direction flows quickly and wittily, with a great soundtrack support and enough winks and nods to other movies to make it even more interesting. A self-assured comedy with just enough action beats to make it a respectable spy thriller, Kingsman feels fresh and fun.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Michael Douglas may be getting older, but can still play a terrific villain and while Beyond the Reach will forever struggle to be seen by more people, it does offer Douglas in fine form as a rich man convinced that the rules don’t really apply to him. When a hunting trip turns sour and a man is killed by accident, the antagonist and his hunting guide come to engage in a deadly game. Jeremy Irvine is ordinary in the role of the poor hunted protagonist, but it’s hard to hold his own against a splendidly magnificent Douglas. Otherwise, Beyond the Reach features good cinematography of the Mojave Desert. (We can almost feel the heat coming from the screen.) It ridiculously falls apart at the end, with a coda as ludicrous as it seems detached from the rest of the film. The direction is occasionally off, especially at the beginning –almost as if director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti couldn’t figure out if he was going for an indie drama or an escapist thriller. There’s a fine line between stripped-down and enigmatic, and Beyond the Reach initially doesn’t quite know where it is. Things get better once our two main characters are in the desert and money faces down wit. It almost certainly could have been better, but in the meantime there’s always another fine Douglas performance to behold.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) There is something almost interesting in the themes that Kidnapping Mr. Heineken develops in its last third, once past the conception and execution of a rich man’s kidnapping: the idea that crime destroys friendships and that it’s hard to know where things will stop once you’ve decided to break the law. Perhaps unfortunately, though, those themes come as afterthoughts and are explored superficially. What’s left is a dreary European crime thriller, featuring interesting actors (most notably Anthony Hopkins and Sam Worthington) but restrained by the facts of the true story of beer magnate Freddy Heineken’s kidnapping in 1983 by a small group of unexperienced friends trying to get fast money through a ransom request. Things don’t go as planned, especially once they do get the ransom and the group splits apart on ideological differences. Worthington is the solid (maybe bland) anchor of the piece, with Hopkins providing a better performance than the film around him. Otherwise, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken does blur into a generally lifeless crime story, aside from a bit of a twist toward the end. It’s not bad, but it’s more ordinary than it should have been.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) There’s a fundamental miscalculation in casting blue-collar persona Mark Wahlberg as an academic, let alone a novelist teaching English Literature. Fortunately, The Gambler is about, well, a gambler: someone so addicted to the thrill of gambling that he has embarked on a one-way trip to self-destruction. That’s the part of the role that Wahlberg seems to be interested in playing. Never mind the ominous hints that this is a thriller – The Gambler is best understood as a character study, with mild threats and unsolvable debt problems thrown in. Is it successful? Partly so: It’s often interesting to watch, features a great scene-stealing turn by John Goodman, coasts a long time on the inherent tension of being indebted to unsympathetic people, and some of the cinematography is quite nice. Still, there are a lot of parts to The Gambler and they don’t necessarily fit together very well. The protagonist goes out of his way to be self-destructive, which doesn’t help in establishing audience sympathies. The romantic sub-plot isn’t handled particularly well, as are the familial complications of the story. The ending abruptly remembers that there is a semi-criminal thriller element to the film and wraps up quickly (followed by a semi-ridiculous run out of downtown Los Angeles). It’s hard not to feel that, as interesting as The Gambler can occasionally be, it could have been made stronger and more memorable with a few changes.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) There’s not a whole lot to say about wholly-unmemorable The Last Exorcism Part II: While the original has an unexpected small kick to it, this sequel seems determined to be as dull as possible. Thankfully gone is the found-footage motif, but also gone are the dramatic ironies of the previous film’s skeptic rediscovering faith, or any kind of thematic depth whatsoever. Ashley Bell acquits herself honorably in her role, but there’s simply not much there for her to do: Much of the film is unimaginatively executed according to horror-film formula (and not the good formula either). The moment-to-moment scares are ineffective, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with its New Orleans setting, the conclusion is one we’ve seen countless times before… In other words, The Last Exorcism Part II is exactly the kind of cheap horror sequel that give a bad name to cheap horror sequels. The film’s sole saving grace is that it’s simply dull, rather than offensive or irritating. On the other hand, it means that it’s hard to find anything to say about a film so devoid of any substance. Fortunately, it’s redundant to tell everyone to forget about The Last Exorcism Part II – it only takes a few minutes for any lasting impressions of the film to disappear on their own.
(On TV, June 2015) There’s something charmingly neurotic in the way we Canadians seek so desperately to prove our modest achievements while holding on to our vaunted politeness. As someone who was there when the Canadian written-SF field sort of re-discovered itself in the mid-nineties, Lost Heroes’ quest to prove the existence of Canadian comic-book superheroes feels intensely familiar (it helps that I’ve chatted with some of the interview subjects, such as Mark Shainblum) A documentary tracking down the history of Canadian superhero comics since World War 2, Lost Heroes does a fine job hitting the main references in the field (Nelvana, Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck, Northguard/Fleur-de-Lys, with honorary points for Alpha Flight / Wolverine) and pointing the way forward through the nascent media of webisodes. Trying hard to get away from talking-head repetitiousness, Lost Heroes jazzes up the material by blowing up comic-book frames and using them as animation elements. Writer/director Will Pascoe’s paean to Canadian geekdom moves at a decent pace, although some of the latter material seems to get away from the comic-book world and into something that’s just too new to evaluate fairly. As a statement on Canadian superheroes so far, Lost Heroes does feel definitive enough. Dedicated genre fans may even learn a thing or two. (As far as minor revelations go, I was fascinated to find out that Mark Askwith, co-creator of the much-missed Prisoners of Gravity, was also involved with Silver Snail, where I did a bit of shopping back in the days.)
William Morrow, 2013, 304 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-00622400
I picked up Ben Mezrich’s Straight Flush in a somewhat desperate attempt to reboot my reading. Due to various factors, my reading regimen has dwindled to almost nothing in the past few years. With a young child at home and various things to do around the house, my free time is limited and these days I long more for the passivity of movie-watching than for the effort of reading.
So, I thought, why not go back to a known quantity? When you pick up a Ben Mezrich book, you know what to expect: A heavily fictionalized account of real events, usually involving bright young men, halfway-legal schemes and massive amount of money. Our heroes are usually stuck between organized crime and police authorities, spend a lot of time around drugs, cars and women, and see the light at the end of the ride. Mezrich writes fantasy fiction for young men obsessed with status, riches and being cleverer than everyone else. I may not always like Mezrich’s book, but I can usually read them quickly and be reasonably entertained by the result.
Straight Flush did not disappoint me in that it’s almost exactly a pure Mezrich book. It tells the story of the frat-boys who founded an online casino in Central America, raking in the money until the U.S. government got wise and decided to criminalize their operations. There’s more to it, of course: the cutthroat competition between the casino start-ups, hints of cheating scandals, what it feels like to be hunted down by the U.S. government, and the sunny Costa Rican setting. If this is familiar to you, it’s either because this story made headlines circa 2010, or you’ve seen the 2014 film Runner Runner, which tackled the same subject in an even more fictionalized fashion.
But what I didn’t expect is how I would quickly sour on the people depicted in Straight Flush, or how even I (completely ignorant of the world of online Poker) would find fault with Mezrich’s attempts to exonerate the actions of his subjects. In keeping with his other books, Mezrich’s standard tone is one of barely repressed admiration for his characters. Since they made a lot of money, aren’t they smart? Aren’t they allowed a few exceptions to the rules given how clever they are? Aren’t haters just hating when they criticize them? Except no. They lucked out, exploited a legal loophole and then got caught with their pants down when the U.S. government finally passed down the law. Mezrich may try to excuse the behaviour of his subjects, but he doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for them.
It gets much, much worse when he tackles the issue of cheating at his heroes’ online casino. Worse yet: he tries to have it both ways, first by ending a chapter on the stunning revelation that an address associated with the cheating belongs to one of the casino insiders … then picks up in the next chapter by casually explaining that it was an unauthorized access to the system (by, what, a janitor?) that was the real explanation for the cheating. Even as a know-nothing in this field, that struck me as exceptionally suspicious. Then I checked other online sources commenting on the book and got eyefuls of savage criticism (“a gigantic literary fraud!” reads the most informative of them) against the book. If you go down that rabbit hole, be warned: The book comes out shredded once some of the most virulent reviewers are done with it. (Hilariously enough, most of the harshest Amazon reviews were posted within the span of a week or two, a month after the book’s release.)
I’ll be kinder, but not by much: In the end, Straight Flush reminded me not so much of Mezrich’s strengths, but his weaknesses in trying to spin entertaining docu-fiction out of shady stories. He ends up overcompensating by convincing himself that his sources are misunderstood heroes rather than possible criminals. He gilds the truth with some much drama that everything becomes even less believable. He creates conversations that can’t happen and so obviously fudges the chronology that even a cursory Wikipedia check can prove him wrong. If you’re on the more mature side, there’s something increasingly grating about Mezrich’s bad-geeks-gone-wild shtick that is nearing its expiration date. As much as I wanted to revisit the joy of reading with this book, I ended up revisiting the joys of writing a bad review. Eh, I’ll take it.
(On TV, June 2015) I don’t often cry while watching movies, let alone slick soulless Hollywood comedies, but taking in a film about men dying of cancer days after attending a funeral for a friend who passed away from leukemia is asking for exceptions. So it is that, uncharacteristically enough, I felt a few manly tears roll down my cheeks during the last few moments of The Bucket List, as I started contemplating life, death, legacies and whether it’s even possible to go gently into the night. I really didn’t expect this from this film, which is as pre-packaged a glossy Hollywood comedy as it comes. But we are creatures of circumstances, and for a few minutes I was able to let go of my usual analytical mind and just feel purely sad. So it is that I’m not going to attempt to review The Bucket List itself: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson each play to their strengths, and the result just short-circuited my logical circuits. Given how deeply my departed friend was into movies (he was once nominated for a Genie screenwriting award), may this serves as a significant epitaph of sorts.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) You would think that a film written and directed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, starring no less than Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, would somehow ends up being quite a bit better than Are You Here. It’s not that the film is a complete bore: In between Owen’s turn as a womanizing, stoner weatherman and various odd bits and pieces of comedy, there’s enough here to keep our interest… but somehow it doesn’t add up to something as good as could be expected. Galifianakis is a bit annoying, some of the subplots get tiresome and the ending is pure Weiner-enigma, leaving loose ends all over the place. There is also a surprising amount of nudity for a film that didn’t need as much of it. Ultimately, Are you Here is too scattered to make any impression; it comes softly, goes without fuss and disappears.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) For fans of the written series, Season 5 of Game of Thrones is where things turned interesting. Readers know that books 4-5 of the series were a disappointing mess of new uninteresting subplots, overwritten prose, scattered characters and an absence of interesting plot points. Would the TV show do better? At first glance, it’s not clear: While the action gallops forward, it also goes in directions that are startlingly new. The show-runners have made the wise decision to limit the number of new characters and have existing ones meet in ways unknown in the books. While some of it seems empty (that visit to Dorne won’t be in anyone’s highlight reel), other plots threads (such as the Tyrion one) seem much tighter and interesting. The pacing is better, even though some plot developments seem a bit rough. Less fortunately, there is a sense (via two or three particularly violent sequences) that the show, increasingly freed of its literary inspiration, is eagerly overstepping the bounds of good taste for shock value: Subsequent seasons (and books, since we’re in unknown territory in some subplots) will show whether titillation or foreshadowing was the intent. Still, it’s a rollicking tale, and some of the visuals in this season 5 are finally realizing the universe of the series to its fullest potential. (The end battle of episode 8 easily rivals some fantasy movies for sheer excitement.) While too many questions remain to make this season an unqualified success, it does provide a far more straightforward continuation of events –readers who grew exasperated with tome 4 and 5 may find their interest in the series rekindled. Of course, the real fun may start in Season 6, which may begin airing before the corresponding volume is published…
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I quite enjoyed Mordecai, but I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s got a peculiar sense of humor: it’s far more ridiculous than funny, and that’s a tricky tone to appreciate. Johnny Depp stars with, once again, a consciously off-the-wall performance as an art dealer who gets embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans surrounding an infamous painting. (While he’s initially portrayed as incompetent, the film improves immeasurably when we get an idea of his true skills.) Gwyneth Paltrow, unexpectedly radiant, joins the fun as Lady Mortdecai, while Paul Betttany, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Goldblum also seem to be enjoying themselves in their respective roles. Of course, Mortdecai makes a few bold choices along the way, taking on a particular kind of humor than runs the risk of falling flat for those who aren’t perfectly attuned to what it’s trying to do. I, for what that’s worth, didn’t laugh much throughout Mortdecai, but I smiled a lot, and found myself looking forward to the next ridiculous scene or bit of snappy dialogue. Much of the humor is forced (the mustache gags are… special) but the silly tone itself is amusing, bringing to mind respectable references such as Wodehouse and less-respectable ones such as Hudson Hawk. Director David Koepp keeps things moving briskly (the place transitions are a work of beauty), and it doesn’t take much to be swept up with the infectious oddball charm. But, then again, keep in mind that I actually liked Hudson Hawk –don’t trust me if you don’t feel the same way.
(On TV, June 2015) A weepy emotionally-manipulative ludicrous drama is already bad, but a weepy emotionally-manipulative ludicrous drama with a terrible ending is much, much worse. I actually could have lived with Pay it Forward’s central conceit –a young teenager creating a self-reinforcing wave of generosity that sweeps the nation. (In this age of social media, you can completely imagine #payitforward as a viral week-long sensation.) It’s all meant to be Highly Dramatic, although some of the sting is taken off through a non-chronological structure that works as a mystery. Adapted from a novel, Pay it Forward is obviously meant to appeal to the same kind of people who put up inspirational quotes all over their social media feed. And that’s fine –everyone deserves stories meant for them. For the rest of us cynics, though, Pay it Forward can be so manipulative as to be repellent. And that’s before we get to the terrible ending, which throws its protagonist under the bus in order to make everything even more Dramatic and Meaningful. Ah well; whatever. At least Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt (in a thoroughly un-glamorized role) all get something to play, and moralizing do-gooders everywhere get a film they can enjoy. If only it wasn’t for that ending, that truly awful ending…