(On Cable TV, July 2015) Nobody expected much from the reboot of the Planet of the Apes series, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended up being a surprise success, taking seriously one of the campiest premise in cinema history and turning it into something both worthwhile and surprisingly affecting. This sequel, surprisingly or not, improves upon its predecessor. Plot-wise, this is a far busier film: Years after the deadly pandemic triggered in the first film, the apes have clustered north of San Francisco, living more or less unaware of the group of humans that have congregated in the city. But when the human, fearing energy shortages, start poking around north to take advantage of an unused hydroelectric dam, the gears of war are set in motion. Much of the film is spent is squirming regret, as the two groups move closer to all-out violence. Of the human cast, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russel have the best roles, but the real focus here are the apes and how they are portrayed. The stunning special effects of the original (good enough to make us forget that practically no real animals were used in the making of the film, just digital effects) are used even more effectively here. Director Matt Reeves does well with the good material he’s given, to the point that a scene that impossible to describe soberly (an ape riding a horse, firing an assault rifle in each hand!) ends up not ridiculous, but terrifying. Defying the odds for a second straight film, this Planet of the Apes reboot series is looking like a better and better idea.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2015) The story of Moses isn’t exactly unknown, so seeing an animate film take it on seems a bit superfluous. But in the hands of Dreamworks Animation (then a brand-new studio with something to prove), The Prince of Egypt ends up being a lively, even exciting presentation of a familiar story. The integration of traditional animation with computer-generated imagery is a bit dodgy (as is the case for most animated films of that time), but the animation itself is usually solid. The songs are fine, the characters make an epic story somewhat approachable and the expected high points (the plagues and the parting of the red sea, obviously) are indeed highlights of the film. The prince of Egypt, even more than fifteen years later, compares favorably to the far more technically polished Exodus: Gods and Kings.
(On TV, July 2015) I had skipped Underworld: Rise of the Lycans on account of being bored senseless by the first two installments of the Underworld series, but the fourth film was a step up, and I thought that the third film maybe could be closer to the fourth one’s quality. Alas, that’s not to be: This medieval prequel may actually be duller that the first two films, so lost in its own dull vampires-versus-werewolves mythology. It is, simply put, boring, dull, lifeless – and that’s not even mentioning the flat direction, monotonous color palette and meaningless plot. Even mere days after watching the film, I’m struggling to remember anything of note to mention. Rhonda Mitra is the same shape and color as Kate Beckinsale, but she can’t do anything to save this film from terminal pointlessness. Entirely useless, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans isn’t worth anyone’s time.
Ace, 2015, 416 pages, 34.95 hc, ISBN 978-0425281178
There’s a notion of a quote rummaging around my brain, something along the lines of “in difficult times, you will recognize your true allegiances”. Although that’s far too dramatic for what I’m trying to get across: I haven’t been reading a lot these days, displaying an uncommon ability to tell myself, “Oh, this book can wait until I have more time”. Except for any new Charles Stross book, which I end up ordering almost on the day it’s available. So it is that I practically haven’t read any fiction in a while, but I had Stross’s latest novel in my hand a mere four days after its North American publication.
But then again, I’ve already written about how Stross’ The Laundry Files is my favourite ongoing series. Blending humour, horror, technical references and a wry understanding of contemporary fiction, it’s a series made for a very particular set of readers, but a set of which I am part. It’s also a series that keeps evolving. The first volume wasn’t meant to lead to a series, and the first four volumes had very different intentions (and methods) from the latter ones. But here we are now, with The Annihilation Score, sixth novel in a cycle that may or may not stop at the ninth instalment.
A few things are different in this volume. For the first time, the story isn’t narrated by “Bob Howard”: As anticipated by a few previous volumes in which the story escaped Bob’s narration to feature other perspectives, and finalized by Bob’s ascension to a high-level Laundry position, this new novel is narrated by none other than Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, Bob’s now-estranged wife following the dramatic conclusion of the previous volume.
Mo is not Bob (even though Bob’s technical patois and sense of humour has clearly influenced her narration) and it shows: Much of the book is spent seeing her trying to hold it together as she must deal with simultaneous crises. Not only does she have to deal with the fallout of her decision to separate from Bob, but the United Kingdom has to face the appearance of super-powered individuals in the build-up to Case Nightmare Green. She’s stuck trying to coordinate a government response while, oh yes, keeping demons both literal and figurative at bay. She doesn’t entirely succeed, especially when she also ends up developing superpowers of his own.
As with most Stross books, the joy of the novel is in seeing a different take on familiar topics. Eschewing super-heroic conventions, Stross does his damnedest to figure out how a nominally competent government would react to the appearance of superheroes. How to integrate them in law, procedures and government operations. How to combine the British ideal of policing by consent to the power fantasies of supernatural powers. For those Laundry Files fans reading from within Westminster bureaucracies, there’s some glee in seeing how Stross imagines setting up a new public service department from scratch, down to making sure the furniture is delivered and installed.
If you’re reading to keep up with the increasingly complex cast of character, The Annihilation Score has a heck of a payoff in seeing Bob’s girlfriends team up to fight evil. It also provides a different (and far scarier) perspective on Bob himself—it’s becoming clear that Bob isn’t quite who he used to be, and that the way he has portrayed himself in the past few novels is a mask trying to pretend that he’s the same likable tech guy of the first three books. The Laundry universe expands to accommodate everything coming out of Stross’s idea factory, and the result still hangs together decently.
In many ways, The Annihilation Score is a test for readers of the series—is the series about Bob or The Laundry itself? Is Bob still a hero? Is the series designed for comfort reading, or for a few upsetting shocks along the way? It’s not the same kind of novel that the first volume in the series was. Fortunately, Stross trains his readers well—over time, the probability of nuclear annihilation in Stross series approaches 100%, and the series has shifted gears so many times by now that The Annihilation Score feels like a natural extension of the series. Even as I have dramatically curtailed my fiction buying habit, one certitude remains—I’m ordering the next Laundry File novel the week it comes out.
(On Cable TV, July 2015) I don’t normally approve of movies changing the title of their literary origins, but considering that Robert A Heinlein’s “All you Zombies” is both an instantly-recognizable spoiler and a strikingly misleading title, let’s see the retitling of the story as Predestination as the first of the writer/director Spiering Brother’s many good decisions in adapting this seminal SF short story. Given that the short story pack a lot of punch in a few thousand words, it’s not entirely surprising that there’s enough material here for an entire film, along with a slight but pleasing coda that brings us a bit beyond the short story without robbing it of its twisty power (and adding an extra thematic layer to it). Part of the problem in discussing the film is in deciding how much to say – Ethan Hawke is pretty good in the lead role, but Sarah Snook is absolutely spectacular in a far more difficult role. The film is carefully written and directed, taking place in a slightly alternate world that owes much to the fifties’ vision of the future. Predestination’s success is even more remarkable considering that the source material couldn’t be trickier to adapt –one wrong decision, and the sheer preposterousness of the entire story would crush it lifeless. But the result, amazingly enough, holds up –and it also holds up for those readers who know every twist and turn of the original story.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2015) Teenage sex comedies aren’t exactly rare, but what distinguishes The To Do List from the pack are that it dares take the perspective of an awkward but intelligent overachiever who get to set her own agenda when it comes to losing her virginity during her pre-college summer. Setting the film in 1993 ensures that the answers to her fumbling exploration of the issue aren’t an Internet search away. (Incidentally, I realized watching the film that 1993 was also the year of my pre-college summer. Gee, I’m getting old when 1993 earns nostalgia points…) The film does have a pleasant narrative drive, but it quickly becomes obvious that it’s not even slightly interested in being sexy –merely amusing with a side-order of cringe-worthy. Aubrey Plaza headlines the film, but while I liked her a lot in other supporting roles, here she seems a bit generic –fortunately, supporting performances from Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as the protagonist friend have more personality. The film’s low-budget is sometimes apparent, and the humor is uneven. But I really don’t want to be overly critical of The To Do List: The female gaze of the film, written and directed by Maggie Carey, is undeniably more interesting that most American Pie-inspired boys antics and the conclusion seems surprisingly mature given the sub-genre of the film. It is, in other words, the kind of small-scale film, imperfect and easily overlooked, that’s nonetheless a small success in its own way. It would be a shame not to see it.
(On TV, July 2015) The best and worst thing about Couples Retreat is how resolutely predictable it can be. A fairly traditional (albeit PG-13-rated glancing at R) Hollywood comedy about matrimonial reconciliation, it relies heavily on the comic persona of its lead actors: Jason Bateman plays the straight-man with a bit of unpleasantness lurking at the edge of his personality; Vince Vaughn plays the overgrown-frat boy loudmouth; Jon Favreau is a lout… and so on. Characters are established early and seldom deviate from their broad personalities, the reconciliatory ending is a foregone conclusion and the gags along the way tend to be fairly obvious. Much of the details are inane bordering on moronic (I’m still figuring out why Guitar Hero would need a dedicated salesman) but the film goes have the “tropical retreat romantic comedy” atmosphere in the tradition of Just Go With It, Blended or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even though most jaded viewers may not appreciate the leisurely pace of characters on holidays, there’s a little bit of vicarious living in spending an hour or so in tropical settings. The main players are up to themselves: Bateman and Vaughn don’t really stretch their persona, but Jean Reno makes for a fun self-help guru while Peter Serafinowicz has a small but hilarious role as a demanding host. All of the film’s slight qualities don’t manage to make it stand out as anything but a middle-of-the road kind of comedy. There was potential for something a bit more unnerving (a comparison between trailer and final film suggests that at least one risqué subplot was cut out –although a reference to realized infidelity stays in the film and comes as a bit of a surprise.) but in the end embraces traditional values. And yet, as predictable Couples Retreat can be, it’s also comforting in a way.
(In French, On Blu-Ray, July 2015) At the time of The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney animated movies had an undeserved reputation for formal stuffiness, their quasi-mythic grandeur either being absent of comedy (Pocahontas), sweeping it aside (The Lion King) or being undermined by it (Mulan). The overtly-comic Hercules is an important exception, but it too often struggled to present a solid dramatic framework as backup for its pop-culture gags. So it is that The Emperor’s New Groove comes (still) as a refreshing change of pace, taking on a post-modern comic sensibility and minimizing the drama to its structural essence. The sense of humor shown by the film is far hipper than most of its contemporaries, with a fast-talking narrator/protagonist and a slapstick narrative that feels far removed from the staid Disney brand. It may not aspire to much more than a modest commercial success (reading about the film’s troubled origins clearly shows that its conception was of a hail-Mary move to recoup a huge investment in a failed project.) that won’t have the same staying power as most other Disney animated films, but The Emperor’s New Groove is still quite enjoyable fifteen years later and doesn’t seem to have aged a single second even at a time when most animated films are computer-generated. I’ll note that the French version included on the Canadian Blu-Ray version has two recognizable voice actors, and features quebecisms (including accented turns of phrase) far more often than other translated Disney films.
(On TV, July 2015) There’s a particular type of domestic bourgeois horror at the heart of Duplex, which is to say: what happens when a tenant not only refuses to leave, but makes your life miserable? Ben Stiller, in his classic manic mode, and an unremarkable Drew Barrymore star in this black comedy whose main claim to fame remains that it’s directed by Danny DeVito. Duplex is, for the most part, a reasonably entertaining accumulation of mayhem, as a sweet old lady proves to be the bane of our protagonist landlords. It escalates quite a bit, in ways that don’t feel entirely natural. The point of the film being embarrassment and violent intentions, it’s not the kind of comedy fit to be appreciated whole-heartedly. The deliberately frustrating ending plays along that vein, making this a film for specific audiences. At least it works on a basic level: most of the film is reasonably entertaining, moves from one plot point to another and packages everything in a neat bow (although, once again, you have to wonder about the sanity of antagonists trying those dangerous long-cons.) Neither particularly good nor bad (albeit maybe irritating), Duplex seems to be the kind of film you see once, shrug off and then make no particular effort to see again.
(On TV, July 2015) Early-career John Grisham was often accused of writing the same story over and over again, but it’s a good story, and The Rainmaker boils it down to perhaps its simplest essence: A young Southern lawyer, basely out of law school, takes on the Establishment and wins –although the ending proves to be bittersweet. There isn’t much more to it, and there doesn’t need to be once the atmosphere and details are filled-in. A much younger Matt Damon plays the protagonist with a good deal of naiveté and steely resolve, with Danny DeVito turning in a rather good performance as his much more devious sidekick, and Jon Voigt is deliciously slimy as a seasoned lawyer with all the resources at his disposal. Otherwise, this is a film that uses a basic story as a framework for moments, giving us a credible insight in the life of a young lawyer working way above his head. The Rainmaker may not be the best movie adapted from Grisham’s work (I’m still partial to Runaway Jury) but it’s almost certainly the purest representation of what Grisham has spent a long time doing on the page.
(In French, On Blu-Ray, July 2015) Most Disney animation films tend to go heavy on sentiment with a bit fo comic relief built-in, so it’s not a bad thing to discover that Hercules inverts the proportions and ends up being a comedy with bits of heartfelt sentiment built-in. A half-satirical take on Greek mythology, Hercules multiplies the pop-culture allusions, irreverent jokes, deliberate anachronism and a conscious take on the hero’s journey. The characters aren’t bad either, especially if you already have a good background understanding of Greek mythology. It helps that we also get a strong heroine to play off Hercules himself: I had enough bits of pieces of the film years ago to figure out that Megara was one of my favourite female Disney characters until that point, and a good beginning-to-end look at the film only confirmed that quick assessment. The jokes fly fast, and while the film can’t avoid a bit of mood whiplash when the dramatic stakes get heavier (kind of Mulan in reverse, which suffered from it comic relief), much of the film works reasonably well. As an outright comedy, Hercules will never be considered in the top third of the Disney animated features, but it’s a very enjoyable one, and a welcome change of pace for the studio.
(On TV, July 2015) I probably could have written the following review without seeing Australia, so consistent is director Baz Luhrmann when he gets to work: Fantastic visual style, great performances by the lead actors, a bit of an underwhelming script and a sense of excess that overflows from every frame. As it turns out, that’s an accurate assessment: This take on World-War-Two northern Australia is every bit as lush and excessive as we could expect it from the creator of Moulin Rouge! Nicole Kidman is radiant as a widow taking on her deceased husband’s ranch, running against cattle barons trying to take it from her, but meeting a charming cattle driver played by the always-photogenic Hugh Jackman. Thematically, Australia is more concerned about aboriginal exploitation, spending a lot of time fretting over a young boy’s problems as he’s taken away from the ranch. Still, this is all an excuse for razzle-dazzle epic, perhaps none more over-the-top than the cliff-side stampede. To its credit, Australia is about show and spectacle, and there’s definitely a place for that kind of stuff. The landscape is impressive, and shot in consequence. Less fortunately, this tendency toward excess can lead to unchecked lengths and meandering storytelling – and yet, for a movie so grandiosely titled, Australia doesn’t always feel as epic as it should be. It’s not as innovative as it could have been either, as Luhrmann giving a lot of energy trying to re-create familiar sequences. Still, it’s decently entertaining –often on the sole basis of its wide-screen ambition. I suppose that it could have been worse –at least we get almost exactly what we expected from the film.
(In French, On Blu-Ray, July 2015) For parents with Disney-addicted toddlers, there are a lot of familiar Disney-film elements in Tarzan: The jungle location, the animal characters, the dead parents, the musical numbers, the adaptation of a familiar tale… Fortunately, the way it all blends together is also classic Disney, which means that it works pretty well even when it’s following the rule book. As an animated film, it does have the luxury of presenting much of Burroughs’ original story without compromises. It certainly help that the animation is eye-popping, flawlessly integrating CGI environmental elements with traditional hand-drawn characters thanks to the vaunted “Deep Canvas” technology. (In that, Tarzan shows its place in animation history – films completed two years earlier like Anastasia still had dodgy integration between the two animation methods, whereas Atlantis, two years later, would feature even more CGI elements well-integrated with the rest of the traditional animation.) The three-dimensionality of some sequences is jaw-dropping (better than most live-action films), and the rest of the animation is as good as it ever gets. Musically, the film is well-served by Phil Collins’ songs, with the “Two Worlds” anthem being instantly memorable. (Interestingly enough, the French version also has Collins signing his own songs in French, although it’s obvious that he’s doing so phonetically, with a heavy accent peeking through.) It all amounts to a pretty good adventure, albeit with a slightly weaker third act. Still, it’s a pretty good example of late-era Disney 2D animation, aiming for the slightly older set of kids.
(On Cable TV, July 2015) As much as I enjoy seeing Liam Neeson taking on action roles in borderline-exploitation thrillers, the problem is that he’s usually far better than the movies surrounding him, and he’s such a good actor that an unintentional layer of irony surrounds his Liamsploitation streak. So it is that his most enjoyable roles have been in over-the-top thrillers, from Non-Stop to Unknown to The A-Team to Taken. With the unusual exception of The Grey (serious film ; fantastic role), he doesn’t do as well in straight-up crime thrillers like A Walk Among the Tombstones, a humorless and dark suspense film in which he plays a private investigator tracking down the murdered wife of a mobster and finding a pair of serial killers. It’s a dirty grimy little tale, and while Neeson is irreproachable as an ex-alcoholic retired cop turned to private investigations, the film itself is far duller than it ought to be. In other words; Neeson is awesome, the film is not fun. Adapted from a late-sequence Scudder series novel by Lawrence Block, the film sometimes feels like an overblown TV series pilot, complete with the story of how the protagonist meets and befriends his sidekick. While it would be churlish not to like the result as a run-of-the-mill suspense film, seeing Neeson headlining the film does bring up unfair expectations.
(On DVD, July 2015) It’s rare to squarely point at length as a film’s main point of failure; usually, if the film is good then a few lulls won’t damage it; conversely, if a film is bad it will feel long even at 85 minutes. But Meet Joe Black is something else: A film with pretty good moments, marred by interminable subplots and, thanks to director Marti Brest, a shooting style that never makes a point in five seconds if thirty will do. A very young-looking Brad Pitt starts as Death incarnate, taking a holiday among humans to understand how we act like we do. Opposite him, Anthony Hopkins plays a Hollywood rarity: a wealthy man with some innate decency, a genuinely good guy who nonetheless escape caricature. Finally, Claire Forlani has never looked better than she does here as the daughter of the wealthy man, seduced by Death’s innocence. (Which leads to a pretty funny scene in which our businessman comes to realize that Death, nominally there to get him, has ended up sleeping with his daughter.) The film does have an understated poignancy, as death and his target negotiate the terms of our businessman’s death over a few days, timing it to ensure a small triumph. And while the film does have a few unintentionally hilarious moments (That shot of Pitt’s character being hit by two cars plays beautifully as a looped gif), it’s generally earnest in its musings. But, as stated previously, the film is fatally wounded by its pacing. There simply isn’t enough plot to justify the three-hours (!) running length –in fact, the pacing issues are glaringly obvious on an individual scene level as there is no snappiness to the editing and sequences always run longer than you’d expect. Lop off an hour (from the script, not in the editing room) and you’d have a far more potent film. As it is, though, Meet Joe Black will repeatedly put anyone to sleep.