(Netflix Streaming, September 2015) I’m definitely not as good an audience for martial arts films as I was a decade ago, because even if I can recognize Yip Man as a good example of the form, accomplished in its fights yet with something more on its mind than a simple succession of combat demonstrations, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for it. Set largely against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China before and during WW2, Yip Man is, more than anything else, a showcase for the affable and quiet power of Donnie Yen, who plays the title role as a charming but utterly competent martial arts instructor. The fights grow in ferocity, from playful sparring to bone-crunching mortal combat. The cinematography is too-often similar, though, and some of the narrative points aren’t made with any subtlety at all. A comparison with The Grandmaster, which focused on the same character’s story, is almost instructive: While The Grandmaster led nowhere, it did seem to do so in far more lavish style, and as a result may linger in memory a bit longer than Yip Man even if its narrative flaws were deeper. I actually liked Yip Man; I just expected that I’d like it even more than I actually did.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) I started watching The Bling Ring with fairly low expectations, pulled in by director Sofia Coppola’s name and not much else. But as the film advanced, I felt pulled in opposite directions; fascinated by the true story told relatively faithfully by the film, and exasperated at the way it was being told. The premise itself is a mesmerizing mix of modern technology, celebrity obsession and dumb teenage antics as a few fashion-obsessed high schoolers get the insane notion that they can just walk into celebrities’ homes and take what they want from their overfilled closet. The amazing, never-would-have-believed-it-if-it-wasn’t-a-true-story part is… it works. They find out Paris Hilton is out partying in a foreign country, find her house using Google, poke around the doors and windows until they find an unlocked way in (or a key under the mattress), party in her rooms, pilfer a few high-end items… and repeat the heists a few times. They flash their new wares and piles of cash on Facebook, party on, wear designer clothes, brag a bit, get caught on video with fewer consequences than they’d expect. It feels like a collision between two or three things that wouldn’t have existed a decade before, and there’s a bit of quasi-parental affection in the way the films look at its teenage hoodlums, who are more greedy and careless than outright evil or stupid. There is a good kernel of interest here, and one that makes the film stick in mind even a few days later. Unfortunately, The Bling Ring doesn’t exactly manage to do justice to its own subject. The cinema-vérité approach get dull quickly, the over-bright bleached cinematography calls attention upon itself without having much of an effect, and worse of all the film feels very long even if it doesn’t exceed 90 minutes. There is, granted, an aesthetic at play here that escapes me, as nice as it is to actually see the interior of Paris Hilton’s house. While the film hints at interesting ideas and offers the potential for a deeper thematic critique (or, heck, just a deeper exploration of its characters), it feels unsubstantial, unfulfilled, even a bit too superficial in the way it approaches its subject. Despite being light on moralism (although that segment where the police raids the protagonists’ houses is heavy enough to make parents have fits of anxiety), The Bling Ring disappoints more than it enlightens, and seems to set itself up for bad reviews by misusing the material at its source. Perhaps a wider deviation from the real events may have helped the film feel more substantial.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) Of Disney Animation Studios’ fifty-odd animated features, some have become classics, while others languish as footnotes. Fifteen years after release, it looks as if Treasure Planet is not going to be much more than a curiosity alongside much stronger works such as Tarzan and Lilo & Stitch. That doesn’t make it a bad film, though: By 2015 standards, Treasure Planet gets extra points for a quasi-steampunk science-fantasy atmosphere that blends the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with just enough science-fiction details to make it interesting. There are spectacular vistas, amusing details, clever anachronisms –this isn’t meant to be a serious SF film, after all, but a Victorian boy’s adventure transplanted in a deliberately retro notion of space. It works pretty well at what it tries to do –it’s entertaining in its own right, occasionally thrilling and sweeping in scope. The Long John Siler character is an interesting blend of antagonist and mentor, a bit of welcome complexity in Disney films. On a technical level, there’s a lot to like about the integration of 2D characters with 3D environments: it’s remarkably successful and does expand the scope of the film quite a bit. Treasure Planet, one notes, was a box-office bomb, its total revenues nowhere near equalling its lavish 140$M budget. That may help explain why the film remains a less-known title even today… which means that it remains under-exposed and ripe for re-discovery even for those who think they know quite a bit about Disney movies.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) I’m not sure there’s anything objectively wrong about Deliver us From Evil, but neither can I say that there’s anything exceptional about it. While there is some interest in tackling demonic possession as seen from the perspective of a hardened NYPD veteran, the film soon heads for familiar pastures, and doesn’t really get to show anything worthwhile. Eric Bana does fine work as the cop protagonist, with Olivia Munn and Joel McHale turning in short yet credible dramatic presences, but all of them are overshadowed by Edgar Ramirez’s compelling turn as an unusual priest facing ultimate evil. Director Scott Derrickson follows-up his much superior Sinister with a decent atmosphere (grimy and dark and realistic and, alas, rather dull), but the script is too derivative to be particularly interesting. Too long at nearly two hours for the rather slight amount of substance it contains, Deliver Us From Evil ends up being a middle-of-the-road hybrid between police procedural and demonic possession horror, something that works well enough to escape mediocrity, but not enough to leave an impression.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) Nicolas Cage plays in a lot of movies these days, but their quality and satisfaction aren’t always guaranteed. In Tokarev, the problem is as much conceptual as one of execution: For a film designed to question the idea and the easy thrill of pure vengeance, it’s handled in a fairly pedestrian manner, with a terrible event a few minute in that never allows the viewer to relax into even the superficial entertainment of a story well-told. The protagonist repeatedly ignores warnings sent his way to abandon his path of vengeance and the conclusion is merciless in showing the futility of his misguided quest. Unfortunately, what could have been a role ripe for the kind of Cage lunacy (or rather; Nouveau Shamanic) that we’ve come to enjoy from him even in terrible films turns into a sedate and restrained performance, but one that is in no means justified by the rather mediocre fil surrounding him. (Compare to The Frozen Ground or Dying of the Light, where the restraint actually meant something in-context.) Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say about Tokarev: it unspools, feels a bit lacking, does pack an unpleasant punch of a conclusion but it’s not really the kind of film to sit back and enjoy. It seems so determined to make a point that it doesn’t seem to be concerned about making the journey worth undertaking. While Tokarev may be a good counter-point to a lot of revenge-driven films, it’s not very well-served by its development. File this one on the bottom shelf of the Cage filmography.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) At 45 minutes, this HBO sports mockumentary barely qualifies as a feature film, but to its credit, it doesn’t try to outstay its welcome. The joke seems simple enough: In 2000, two tennis players end up playing a seven-day match at Wimbledon. But from a Very Serious introduction featuring a mixture of comedians and real-life sport personalities giving mock interviews (and being inspired by the real-life 2010 three-day Isner-Mahut Wimbledon match), 7 Days in Hell soon turns sillier and sillier, leaving reality far behind as it portrays fantasy portraits of Sweden, raunchy streakers, an aggressive Queen Elizabeth II and more deadly violence than you’d expect in tennis matches. It’s not always even nor focused (there’s a curious diversion about Swedish courtroom cartoons that’s not unfunny, but seems completely out of place) but it’s decently amusing, even as it turns darker toward the end. Andy Samberg is pretty good as a wild-man of tennis, while Kit Harrington has a remarkable turn as his dim-witted opponent. Sports personalities such as Serena Williams and Jim Lampley (this is an HBO production after all) help blur the line between reality and mockumentary, but both John McEnroe and David Copperfield get a few good laughs on their own. The absurdity of the humor is only topped by its crudeness, but it works and at 45 minutes 7 Days in Hell feels like something that will get a few more re-plays than longer traditional films. Best of all; you don’t need to know much about tennis to enjoy it.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, September 2015) I’m pretty sure I saw Beverly Hills Ninja in theaters, three months before I started writing these online movie reviews in early-1997. There’s no wonder, though, as to why I’ve kept almost no memories of the film: It’s terrible. Starring Chris Farley as a dim-witted buffoon trained as a ninja, Beverly Hills Ninja is one pratfall after another, played broadly enough to appeal to all the kids in the audience. Farley is more annoying than endearing, and the film never loses a moment going for subtlety when endless hammering of the same joke is possible. Worse yet: Many of the physical gags can be seen coming long in advance, adding to the misery of the entire film. The bright spots are few and frustrating: Robin Shou is a far more enjoyable protagonist as a competent ninja fixing the title character’s mistakes, while Chris Rock shows up and doesn’t have much to do as the sidekick. There are echoes of Beverly Hills Ninja in Kung-Fu Panda, but the comparison is almost cruel to the latter animated feature. There are films best left in the sands of time, and Beverly Hills Ninja is an unremarkable example of those.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” is the kind of thing that post-apocalyptic science-fiction action movie fans are wont to quote after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. Despite a lengthy gap between installments, a new star, rumors of a troubled production and generalized post-apocalyptic fatigue among moviegoers, this new Mad Max is a solid action film that dares distill its essence in a nearly all-encompassing chase sequence. The non-stop action is shot impressively, with veteran director George Miller proving that he’s still a master of the form. Better yet, the action-movie template actually features a lot of world-building (in the form of crazy details that hint at much more) and relatively progressive politics as women take active roles as agents of the plot. Fury Road cleverly weaves its storytelling in its action sequences, resulting in a film that only pauses deliberately to take its breath. Tom Hardy makes for a fairly good new Max, while Charlize Theron has a strong role as the rebellious Furiosa. Still, this is Miller’s film, and the way he crams more and more excess in his stripped-down film feels like a breath of fresh air: the film is colorful, has stunts that feel honestly dangerous (or painful!). There’s also a lot of thematic depth to the film’s relentless action, from the nature of cultism to the artificial illusion of patriarchy, to altruism as rebirth. While the chase can come across as a bit repetitive, Fury Road remains a solid action film, the likes of which we see too rarely. It’s good enough to make anyone’s day.
(On TV, September 2015) From afar, there isn’t much here to distinguish Can’t Hardly Wait from endless teenage comedies: It’s all about a massive graduation party, with multiple subplots crashing into each other during the last big night of a group of high-school students. There have been many, many, many movies revolving around the same issues (take a look at Project X for one of the latest), and most of the subplots are just as intensely familiar. Still, watching Can’t Hardly Wait, it’s clear that the film succeeds at what it tries to do: despite the predictable plot points, the stereotypes, the sometimes-cheap jokes and the déjà-vu, there are a few chuckles and flashes of energy to the proceedings: Take a look at the drunken-nerd sequence, or the way a letter finds its way from the trashcan to its intended recipient, for two representative examples. For circa-2015 viewers, Can’t Hardly Wait has additionally gained a representative soundtrack of its time, and features (sometimes in very small roles) a dozen actors that have since made a career for themselves. The best performances in the film probably go to Ethan Embry, Seth Green, Lauren Ambrose and Charlie Korsmo, but the cast in general is pretty good at what it tries to do. Thanks to writer/directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s familiarity with the material they’re trying to emulate, the characters are often smarter than we think (Jennifer Love Hewitt has a spectacular speech that shreds a classic trope along the way) and there are odd twists of sub-plots (such as Jenna Elfman’s out-of-the-mists appearance) to keep things interesting. Even jaded viewers may find themselves enjoying Can’t Hardly Wait despite themselves.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) As a Science Fiction film fan with annoying analytical tendencies, I’m often fascinated by those romantic movies that hinge on a clearly science-fictional device (usually time travel or a variant thereof) but otherwise don’t really belong to the SF genre. The Time Traveller’s Wife, About Time, Premonition, The Lake House… take your pick, and add The Age of Adaline to the list, given how a thin (but definitive) scientific rationale is provided to explain how a woman in her twenties stops aging in 1938 and makes it to 2015 by avoiding permanent relationships. Much of the film is about what happens when she finally dares to face love, and what happens when the past comes back to haunt her. Blake Lively is very good in the lead role, while Harrison Ford finally gets to act for the first time in years. San Francisco is used to lovely effect (although it strains credulity to imagine that an immortal would spend most of her time in such a small city) and Lee Toland Krieger’s direction is quite good. From a genre Science Fiction perspective, it seems provocative that the comet metaphor doesn’t make any sense, but particularly that the SF intrusion would be perceived as stifling, the heroine only reaching personal growth when it is removed from the world. (The word “flexibility” is used toward the end of the film in a most telling context.) That’s the kind of detail that illuminates why while The Age of Adaline may be a film with a Science Fiction element, it’s not really a Science Fiction film… although that shouldn’t be seen as a problem for what is, after all, a reasonably entertaining take on romantic drama musings.
(In French, Video-On-Demand, September 2006) It’s easy to feel cynical about Disney’s newest mania in remaking their animation classics in live-action form: it reeks of mindless exploitation, of post-creative consumerism and bankrupt innovation. But it’s always best to see the result before kvetching, and Cinderella makes the disarming choice to revisit the original but keep its heartfelt core. So it is that there’s barely a hint of snark or revisionism here, and the film consciously seeks to re-tell the same story while hitting the same points along the way. This version of Cinderella, for instance, wisely provide a lot more background on the happy childhood of its heroine, making it even more affecting when she’s relegated to the status of menial labour. It expands subplots, adds character depth, tones down the musical numbers, doesn’t completely anthropomorphise its animal relief and messes just enough with the glass slipper climax to keep things interesting for viewers who (ahem) have toddler-watched the original fifty times in the past 18 months. Cate Blanchett is deliciously evil at the wicked stepmother, but Lily James holds her own as the titular Cinderella. Then there’s the amazing production design of the film, presenting a sumptuous fairy tale to the screen: There are images here fit to wow anyone, from the Swarovski glass slipper to the golden Pumpkin carriage to amazing castle flybys. Nearly every frame is a painting (to borrow a phrase) and the beautiful result deserves to be watched. As a result, the two Cinderella films each get to keep their own identity, which is as good as one can hope for in a remake. Not only good on its own, Cinderella manages not to desecrate anything in its wake. Kids will enjoy it (although one notes that it aims at a slightly older audience than the original), but so will their parent.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) Stoner humor is such an absurdly specific subgenre that it can feel both juvenile and hermetic to non-stoners. Given that I live a personal life so clean as to make even straight-edgers feel ashamed of their depravity, I’ve never been much of a good audience for stoner movies. But I chuckled a few times during Half Baked, and I think it’s because the film almost tries to become an anthropological study of stoners, thus making it a bit more accessible than the usual tripe under that category. The story is thin: When a pothead gets incarcerated, his friends end up raising bail money by… selling weed. But on this scaffolding is built a few profiles of stoner types (most of them surprising cameos, from Jon Stewart to Snoop Dog to Janeane Garofalo), some comic exploration of the dirty business of selling drugs and a fairly convincing portrait of their lives. There are, despite the juvenile nature of the film, a few good jokes in there: enough to keep me amused throughout, and not being exasperated at the film as I expected. Dave Chapelle helps a lot in making the film fun; so does Rachel True as the sort-of-voice-of-reason. The last thirty minutes are a bit too heavy on pot and not as heavy on wry observations, but that’s fine given that by that time, Half Baked has already proved to be more enjoyable than it ought to have been.
(On TV, September 2015) What’s frustrating about John Tucker Must Die isn’t as much that it has long stretches that are undistinguishable from every other high-school romantic comedy out there; it’s the other moments, those who escape mediocrity and suggest that there was a much better film to be made from it. The beginning is certainly promising, as our rather sympathetic narrator quickly brings us up to speed with her life (free of attachments, thanks to her mom’s string of boyfriends and her habit of running away at the end of every relationship) and the curious case of John Tucker, high-school philanderer. It’s a breezy, confident beginning and it sets up something a bit different from the usual high-school romantic comedies, as three embittered ex-girlfriends vow to (figuratively) kill John Tucker. Their first attempts backfire, to further unexpected hilarity, but then the plot takes an extremely familiar turn midway through, as we’re back in a “fake love leads to real love” plot. The film loses a lot of steam as it moves through the familiar scenes of that kind of story. Occasionally, a few good lines or unusual choices remind us that while the film might have been initially aiming for a Heathers-grade take on teenage romance films, it ended up in far more mediocre territory. While Brittany Snow isn’t too bad in the lead role, and director Betty Thomas does her best to spruce up increasingly ordinary material, John Tucker Must Die is a good case of failed ambitions in a movie that doesn’t get any better as it runs along.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) So it turns out that I was in the mood for a farce and didn’t even know it. Upon its release, Fierce Creatures soon became known as “the not-as-good companion film to A Fish Called Wanda”, featuring many of the same cast and crew and resonances in plotting. Not having seen A Fish Called Wanda yet (this will change soon), that freed me to enjoy Fierce Creatures on its own merits and while not all of it works as well, it does have considerable charm and strong moments. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about the film (besides the zoo environment, and the sympathetic role given to the animal minders) is how clever the script can be in acknowledging and responding to comic clichés. The first half of the film, for instance, has a ton of dumb plans that end up easily detected and defused by the protagonist: in lesser films, those dumb plans would have carried the day. (It also heightens the stakes for the film’s last fifteen minutes, in which another dumb plan it set up –will it be detected and defused as well?) Otherwise, the film features strong roles for John Cleese as the gradually sympathetic protagonist and Kevin Kline as two imbecilic antagonists, while Jamie Lee Curtis unusually plays up her sex-appeal. The innuendos work, the sight-gags can be very funny and if the film’s first fifteen minutes feel a bit disconnected, much of the film is pleasant enough to watch, building up to a few good set-pieces. (The running gag about the protagonist’s perceived insatiable sexual appetite gets funnier and funnier.) Nearly twenty-five years later, Fierce Creatures remains a well-executed comedy that stands on its own.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) Oh well; like all horror series, the [REC] sequence has now reached a terminal point of no return. [REC] 2 was uneven, [REC] 3 was barely redeemed by its last ten minutes, but [REC] 4 is just… dull. The film picks up moments after the second film (while featuring a bit player from the third one) but quickly locks itself up in a cargo ship where no one, heroes, zombies or viewers, can run away. The result is surprisingly dull, with rote zombie scare and mediocre slug-parasite suspense. Manuela Velasco isn’t too bad as the battered chipmunk-faced heroine of the series (she’s the centerpiece of the film’s best sequence, an attempted vivisection that plays with our sympathies at a moment when her true nature isn’t obvious.) but returning director Jaume Balagueró compounds [REC] 4’s problems with a camera style that combines not only herky-jerky handheld camera (without the excuse of found-footage), but incomprehensible rapid-fire editing as well, making a dark mush of the film’s action sequences. There isn’t much here that hasn’t been seen before, and the closed-off nature of the setting doesn’t bring much to the result. As a result, [REC] 4 is –unfortunately- a bit of a chore to get through. Rumors have it that this is meant to be the last installment in the series, which seems appropriate given its downhill trend. On the other hand, it does leave with an underwhelming conclusion…