(On Cable TV, November 2015) At first, it may be curious to see director Tim Burton, best known for visually inventive film, tackle a “simple” biographical film about an artist. But that assessment ignores two things: first, how Burton is a dedicated real-life fan of Margaret Keane (to the point of having commissioned at least one painting from her); but also how the story of Keane, long denied credits for paintings due to her husband claiming that he was the true artist, would resonate so deeply with fellow visual-artist Burton. So it is that despite the low-spectacle visuals of a realistic biography (albeit featuring an unexpected use of visual effects in a short oneiric scene), you can feel Burton engage with his subject and, in doing so, deliver one of his best films in years. This being said, this isn’t necessarily a masterpiece: De-glammed Amy Adams is very good as Keane, but Christopher Waltz’s manic interpretation of her monstrously egomaniac husband often veers too close to cheap caricature thanks to a narrative firmly beholden to Margaret Keane’s point of view. Despite the rightfulness of this viewpoint, the film seems to make too many cheap jabs and dilute its own effectiveness in doing so. Still, the story works and so does the film in general. The change of pace does Burton good, even though it may mean that Big Eyes doesn’t get half the attention that his other more genre-driven films do.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Tone control is a tricky thing, and few films show this as well as Horns. Adapting Joe Hill’s novel is not an easy proposition, considering how the book veers between comedy and horror and heartfelt redemption story. Novelists can usually control tone better than directors: prose works differently, and what shows up on-screen often suffers from excessive literalism. So it is that while Horns’ screenplay considerably simplifies and strengthens the book’s story (to the point where reading a synopsis of the book can feel like a comedy of overstuffed plotlines), this big-screen version can’t quite manage its transition from comedy to horror. The film is best in its first half, as our protagonist discovers that he’s been cursed with invisible horns, the power of persuasion and a gift for allowing strangers to tell them their deepest secrets. This leads to a number of very funny sequences, but those laughs get fewer and fewer as his newfound powers lead him to understand what happened on the night of his girlfriend’s murder –a murder for which he’s the prime suspect. Chaos engulfs his small town, friends turn to enemies, parents can’t be trusted and the secrets he discover may not be the ones he wants to hear about. Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in the lead role, with Juno Temple being as angelic as she can be as the (idealized?) dead girlfriend. Despite Horns’ problems, this is Alexandre Aja’s least repulsive film yet and one that suggests that he may have a future beyond genre-horror shlock.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Chronologically-challenged crime comedies have been a sub-genre for almost two decades since Pulp Fiction popularized the form, and even the best examples of the genre still seem to labour under the shadow of Tarantino. But as with every sub-genre, it does have its specific pleasures to offer to fans. Australian effort Kill Me Three Times doesn’t re-invent anything, but it does play the game competently enough, and offers as a bonus Simon Pegg in an unusually villainous role. Much of the story is your genre-standard mix of vengeance, corrupt cops, murderous couples, coveted bags of money and characters left for dead. The story reboots three times, and the result doesn’t aim much higher than being a competent genre exercise. As such, your evaluation of Kill Me Three Times will hinge on your overall tolerance for such crime comedies and improbable plot twists. Fans will appreciate the result, what with its unusual Australian scenery and go-for-broke forward narrative rhythm: Director Kriv Stenders keeps things moving even when he’s rewinding to tells his story from another point of view. Simon Pegg clearly has fun playing the black-clad imperturbable assassin, while Alice Braga makes for a sympathetic damsel-in-distress. Otherwise, Kill Me Three Times fills up an unassuming evening of sunny Australian noir comedy. It could have been much, much worse.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Alas, Violet & Daisy has more potential than actual success. Taking place in a world with a clearly-defined criminal ecosystem that includes rates assassins, this is a film about two bubble-gum-popping teenagers working as killers, making money to splurge on the latest celebrity fashion. Their lives, however, are put in question when they take on a contract on a man (James Gandolfini, sympathetic enough in one of his last roles) who seems curiously amenable to their deadly plans, going as far as making things as easy and comfortable for them as possible. Writer/director/producer Geoffrey S. Fletcher clearly has quirkiness in mind in executing his film, but the result seems curiously tame and unbelievable at the same time, not taking enough chances to be interesting. (Comparisons with John Wick, which also indulged in a comic-book universe of codified contract killers, are instructive.) It speaks volumes that, mere weeks after seeing the film, I can’t remember much of the conclusion or even anything beyond the first thirty minutes: It doesn’t help that after a machine-gun opening, the film settles down in an apartment and that even the subsequent gunfights can’t do much to go beyond the talky theater piece that the film becomes. Reflecting the hit-and-miss script, Saoirse Ronan and Alexis Bledel don’t get to show much depth as the talkative teenagers seemingly wrestling with questions of morality and life goals. While Violet & Daisy is amiable enough to be worth an unassuming look, there’s a tangible feeling that something is missing from the result –more exploitation, more depth, more craziness or more realism, but definitely something to take it out of its untenable middle-ground.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) In many mays, American Sniper was a genuine phenomenon in contemporary American cinema. It’s one of the very, very few purely-realistic film to have been a box-office hit, without being a sequel or part of a franchise or incorporating speculative elements. It’s also, even more remarkably, a box-office hit that made most of its money in the United States, reversing the usual domestic/foreign box-office ratio for blockbusters. The reasons for both of those oddities quickly becomes obvious when watching the film, which is a conflicted paean to a fallen warrior. An exchange about sheep, wolves and sheepdogs early on clearly establishes that this is a film aimed at the sheepdogs (or, more cynically, at the sheep thinking they’re sheepdogs), and as such does seem to align with typically conservative values in the culture war that currently dominates American discourse. American Sniper, directed by old-school legend Clint Eastwood, was one of the few mainstream films to comfort conservatives in their values without necessarily annoying liberals who could appreciate the film’s portrayal of a veteran having trouble coping with the aftermath of his tours. That the film is reasonably good helps in ensuring its success. There are certainly plenty of issues with the result, though: Eastwood directs action sequences competently but not exceptionally; protagonist Chris Kyle is portrayed without many of the less-pleasant rough spots that more independent profiles of the man have outlined; the film seems to shy away from the last moments (and drama) of Kyle’s life. But American Sniper worst reasonably well, provides Bradley Cooper with a terrific role, brings together a lot of issues that have preoccupied Americans for the past decade, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the self-righteous militaristic streak of American culture. Any irresistible intention to argue about the film’s merit are part of its added appeal.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’ve been watching and enjoying so many late-nineties thrillers lately that I had begun to worry that I was losing my critical impartiality regarding the sub-genre. Fortunately, here is Mercury Rising to remind me of what a bad movie of the form could be. From a rather pedestrian premise (autistic kid solves problem that means that he’s cracked a top-secret encryption scheme; rogue elements of the government try to kill him; disgraced policeman steps in to protect him), Mercury Rising is primarily a failure of execution. Bruce Willis shows little energy in his role (echoing a lack of interest in most of the movies he’s taken on since 2010), while Alec Baldwin cackles as the villain. The plot is borderline nonsensical, the action scenes are rote and whatever emotional resonance the film tries to wring out of its elements rings false. The ending sequence is particularly bad, unconvincingly built from disparate soundstage elements. Mercury Rising is formula-built, which wouldn’t so bad if it was competently executed. But it isn’t, and despite Baldwin’s enjoyable turn as the antagonist, there isn’t much here to stay entertained.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’ve never been a big fan of Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, sure, but not Mr. Bean) and the first film didn’t do much to mollify me. But there’s a strong streak of cleverness underneath the dumb physical humor and Mr. Bean’s Holidays clearly highlights the wit behind the pratfalls. There are, to be sure, pratfalls a plenty as Bean makes his way south, through France in order to attend the Cannes film festival. For what it’s worth, the film does bet better as it goes on: the first half-hour is pure Bean, but the last one gets satiric about cinema itself. Willem Dafoe shows up as an intensely pretentious actor/director, and that leads us to a very funny Cannes preview of an insufferable arthouse films. At another time, Bean shows up at the right time to screw up the shooting of a big WW2-themed commercial. Those gets laughs that aren’t usually the kind associated with the Mr. Bean character. The rest of the film is generally tolerable, with Atkinson’s mugging for the camera being supported by real comedy. Mr. Bean’s Holidays does seem to be a bit better than the first film, which lost itself in trying to package Bean for an American audience –this time, he looks to be more in his element, in a film tailored to the character’s strengths. Much of it starts to grate early, but there are a few gems in the film’s second half –enough to justify seeing the film even if your reaction to Bean is lukewarm at best.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’m not a big genre-horror fan (don’t like the gore, can’t stand the torture), but films like The Babadook are the kind of horror films that bring me back to the genre and defend it against knee-jerk condemnation. What makes The Babadook different from other average examples of the genre is part conception and part execution. Thanks to a clear vision by writer/director Jennifer Kent, this is a horror film with substance and it exist primarily to talk about things that go deeper that simple horror. Beyond monsters and possession, it’s about grief and parental exhaustion as a mother must deal with a dead husband and an unruly son. The Babadook backs up its intentions with crafty execution: there are a few very strong sequences here, and it takes a while to realize that despite this being a hard-core horror movie with genuine frightening material and somber subject matter, no humans actually die during the film. The ending even manages to be more unsettling than the typical “evil is defeated… or is it?” that defines so much of the genre. Essie Davis is exceptionally good in the lead role, and so is young Noah Wiseman in a turn deliberately designed to infuriate viewers into wishing the worst to the character. (They should be careful what they ask for, though, because the film flips the endangerment later on, to unsettling results.) One word of caution applies for maximum enjoyment: While The Babadook is strong in metaphors, viewers should be warned that it is about a real monster –trying to pretend that the film is a psychological thriller with no supernatural elements ends up diminishing the film’s ultimate impact. This being said, The Babadook is a strong entry in a genre that’s seeing some pretty good years lately. Bundle it with The Conjuring and It Follows for a trio of recent horror films that go beyond the usual genre conventions.
(On TV, November 2015) Sometimes, all that’s needed to save a film from pointlessness is a good ending. The Skeleton Key is not, to be fair, an entire bad film. It’s just that, for all of the magnificent bayou atmosphere of a story that largely takes place on an old plantation, it feels intensely formulaic for most of its duration. So a young nurse (Kate Hudson, more unremarkable than sympathetic) moves in and discovers a pattern of abuse. So she finds out about ancient hoodoo legends and digs deeper. So she earns the enmity of the house’s matriarch. It all points to a well-worn kind of ending… but then that’s not what happens. What happens is, actually, kind of interesting. Mean, but far more interesting than what one would expect from the rest of the film. It doesn’t necessarily catapult The Skeleton Key into a magically better kind of film but it does rescue it from instant forgetfulness. It’s nothing much, but at least it’s a little bit more than expected.
(On TV, November 2015) For most of Hide and Seek, we’re left pondering one crucial question Why would no less than Robert de Niro sign up for a schlocky horror-tinged thriller? Because, for quite a while, that’s all this film seems to be: After the death of his wife, a widower leaves New York with his daughter for a simpler life in a small upstate town. But their attempt to heal quietly doesn’t go as planned when strange and upsetting events start happening. When he daughter starts blaming everything on her imaginary friend, is she to blame, or is there something less natural at play? So far so familiar: director John Polson is competent but not exceptional in the scares he conjures up and if ne Niro and Dakota Fanning are fine as lead protagonists, Hide and Seek doesn’t quite rake up the memories. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering the ludicrousness that awaits in the third act of the film. As the crazy psychological twist become apparent, we start understanding a few things: Why de Niro would accept a seemingly boring role; why go-for-broke endings can feel as exhilarating as cheap; and why Hide and Seek got such terrible reviews. By the time the credits roll, the only thing left to do is laugh nervously and say something along the lines of “well, that happened”. As long as you believe in the infinite malleability of the human mind as demonstrated by crazy psychological thrillers, then Hide and Seek may be of interest. Otherwise, it may rank high on your list of movies destroyed (or redeemed) by their final few minutes.
(On TV, November 2015) Two or three things distinguish House of Wax from your usual run-of-the-mill teenagers-attacked-by-crazy-hillbillies thriller. Depending on your mood, they may be worth a look. The first is that one of the teenagers is played by none other than Paris Hilton, and her inevitably gruesome death sequence may be what you’re looking for. The second may be more important: Our psycho hillbillies here are big fans of wax sculptures, or more accurately spraying wax on living subjects until they live no more. The sequence in which they discover an eerily silent village, and then a house filled with waxy bodies, is a cut above the usual horror shlock. This was Jaume Collet-Serra’s first feature film as a director, and the visual sense he would demonstrate in latter film (as well as a penchant for crazy scripting) is already fully featured here. None of those positive points are enough to make House of Wax any better than an average horror film. The first act takes too long, the characters aren’t particularly likable; there’s an almost-complete lack of thematic depth to the proceedings and the end sequence doesn’t amount to much but a spectacular waxy melt-down. The visual atmosphere, I suppose, is enough to save the film from the memory oblivion that awaits most horror films. It could have been worse, of course.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Disney’s become astonishingly self-referential over the past few years, riffing off its history in ways that would have seemed almost parodic not too long ago. After such films as Enchanted, Maleficient, Into the Woods, or live-action Cinderella, this is more than the reflection of an increasingly degenerate pop-culture implosion: it’s a deliberate corporate strategy, meant to groom another generation of fans as much as re-gain an older one. The stature of Disney is made bigger with the promotion of its own history, and it’s in that spirit that Saving Mr Banks goes all the way back to the fifties to offer not only a romanced look at the making of Mary Poppins, but also a myth-defining portrayal of Walt Disney by none other than Tom Hanks himself. Giving him repartee is Emma Thompson as the magnificently acerbic P.L. Travers, author of the original Mary Poppins story and definitely reluctant to let anyone adapt it to the screen. Interspaced in-between the gradual seduction of Travers are flashbacks to her childhood in Australia, dealing with a self-destructive father (another interesting secondary role for Colin Farrell). Even if not a single frame of Mary Poppins is shown on-screen, some passing familiarity with the film is best in order to catch some of the jokes and allusions. A gentle character study, Saving Mr. Banks is at its best in detailing Travers’ perpetual scowl, and Disney’s constant sunniness, along with the behind-the-scenes look at Mary Poppins’ pre-production. It’s unfortunately not as interesting in its seemingly endless flashbacks, as essential as they can be in defining Travers’ character. Still, the result has its moments and it works even if you’re not really in the mood for some deliberate Disney myth-making.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) It may be time to sit down with Liam Neeson for an intervention. For all of the money he must be making in doing these action thrillers at an age where most actors are trying to slow down, it’s not movies like Taken 3 that will make up his end-of-career highlights reel. Duller and clunkier than most action thrillers, Taken 3 stays near Los Angeles in depicting a third family crisis for Neeson’s protagonist. This time, though, the film dares to kill a returning character and the protagonist’s fury seems curiously tame compared to the first two films. But then again, he’s being followed by criminals and the police. Less xenophobic but far less interesting, Taken 3 struggles with the bare essentials of its genre: the action sequences are badly directed by Olivier Megaton, with choppy editing, incoherent sense of space and uncontrolled dramatic progression. Taken 3 is lazy filmmaking at best, almost uninterested in its own story on the way to delivering another film in the series. It doesn’t do much, wastes the dramatic potential of a death in the family and feels rote even at the best of times. Neeson is far better than the material, and he’s the sole reason why this wasn’t a straight-to-video release. What’s more damaging, though, is that he’s getting to be, well, a bit boring in these action roles. Next to the underwhelming Run all Night and A Walk Among the Tombstones, we’re far from the dramatic heft of The Gray, or the bonkers action of Non-Stop or The A-Team. I hope he starts picking better projects soon.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) I did not expect much from this latest eponymous effort to revive the Turtles for the big screen: I’ve never been a big fan of the TMNT comic books, TV show or toys, and the various attempts to make a big-screen franchise out of them over the years are starting to look desperate. This latest version bets heavily on special effects to create computer-animated versions of the turtles set against a live-action New York. Much of it is almost instantly forgettable, except for a surprisingly good action sequence set on a snowy mountain (conveniently located near New York). Director Jonathan Liebesman is most at easy handling big action spectacles, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a big truck sliding down a snow-covered incline, with ninja turtles jumping all over the place in an effort to do something fairly trivial. It’s the sole (but significant) highlight of a film that otherwise doesn’t manage to make different characters out of its amphibian heroes, nor make much out of its human characters (as nice as it can be to see Megan Fox on-screen again.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’s tone is resolutely juvenile despite half-hearted attempt at fake grittiness, and ILM’s top-notch special effects work doesn’t quite manage to keep things interesting outside the action sequences. Having no real reason to exist except to sell toys and reboot a franchise of undistinguishable films. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seems to exemplify the worst in contemporary blockbuster filmmaking: so much effort for so little results, forgotten as soon as the next such effort makes it to the big screens. My low expectations weren’t even partially met.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2015) Mill Murray’s career took a very stranger turn after Lost in Translation, fulling embracing a sad-clown phase that probably reached its epitome in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Here, Murray plays eccentricity on an almost entirely melancholic register as a rich but sad computer businessman who learns from an unknown source that he’s got a son. Driving around to see his exes in an effort to find out who sent the letter and what happened, Murray’s hangdog charm is just about what saves Broken Flowers from overpowering sadness. Shot blandly and featuring a deliberately maddening ending that doesn’t solve anything, this is the kind of film that either works as a succession of moments between actors, or simply infuriates. (The road-movie structure of the film, in which the narrator travels, meets an ex, escapes and repeats, doesn’t help.) It’s the kind of stuff that some people like a lot. On the other hand, it’s about as dull as Murray has been on-screen, and it may help explain why ten years would go until (in St-Vincent), he’s take another lead role: the sad-clown phase of his career being fully realised, what else was there for him to do? Certainly not go back to the earlier anarchic brat phase of his career; onward, then, to respected elder statesman of comedy, best used in small roles by quirky directors such as Wes Anderson.