(On Cable TV, January 2016) There’s an acknowledged dearth of mainstream realistic adult dramas in today’s cinematic landscape, but I’ll gladly watch a stream of escapist superhero fantasies if the alternative is feeling like slitting my wrists. Unusually dull and sombre films such as Out of the Furnace aren’t the antidote when they’re paralyzed by so much unbearable self-importance. Taking place in the rusted ruins of American industry, it features two down-on-their-luck brothers trying to fit in a world that doesn’t want them once they’ve gone to prison or to war. Out of the Furnace is never a cheerful film, but it gets steadily worse as the protagonists are pushed in increasingly desperate situations. Director Scott Cooper does know how to handle such a film—alas, the material he’s serving isn’t meant for casual consumption. Christian Bale is fine yet not particularly remarkable as the lead, while Casey Affleck is more memorable, but also less likable, as his brother. There are many familiar actors in smaller roles. The dour tone of Out of the Furnace carries through the ending, which almost comes as a relief given how badly we want to get away from this place.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) The world of food has been so tremendously vulgarized to the masses in the last decade that Burnt arrives not as a celebration but a bit of a side dish. As the story of a brash three-star chef who comes back to haute cuisine after some time in the trenches atoning for past mistakes, Burnt has the framework of an incisive look in the life of a professional chef … but doesn’t make all that much of it. Bradley Cooper’s usual mix of cockiness and charisma serves him well as the protagonist, while some of the supporting players (Omar Sy, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl) do just as well. Many of the film’s details, scenes and quips also work, but there’s a maddening sense that Burnt is not going as far as it could have. Nor does it avoid a familiar narrative arc culminating in the protagonist hitting rock bottom. Similarities to Chef, as different as the films (and subject matter) can be, are inevitable and not to Burnt’s advantage. Whereas Chef made viewers warm, happy and hungry, Burnt leaves cold, annoyed and full. It’s not exactly a bad or unpleasant movie, but it suffers from too many other points of comparison, too many familiar elements and too little risk-taking.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) Much of the recent criticism of Pixar, in the wake of Cars 2 all the way to Monsters University, has been rooted in the knowledge that for most of its history, Pixar has not only delivered, but over-delivered. Their movies didn’t just have high concepts, they crammed as much invention as possible in those frameworks, to offer sequences never before seen, strong thematic symbolism and deep emotional cues. (Especially in their Ratatouille, Up!, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 home-run.) Their last few films were well executed but far more ordinary. Now here comes Inside Out to bring Pixar back to its former glories: another incredibly high concept, eye-watering emotional moments, and never-seen-before plot points. Consider that it’s a story that almost entirely takes place within a 12-year-old girl’s mind, climaxes on her deciding (or not) to run away from home, celebrates sadness as an essential part of the psyche and plays far differently for kids and adults. It’s nothing short of a tour-de-force and this despite offering a number of metaphors that break down once you stretch them a little. (It’s in the nature of the incarnated emotions and the film’s theory of the mind that you just want to play with the high concept, extend it, try to make it fit in ordinary and ridiculous situations.) Pixar’s technical game is as good as it gets as well, with fantastic animation and a visual motif of “points of light” making up the characters, lending Inside Out a distinctive atmosphere that leaves lesser efforts far behind in sheer polish. As a movie, it’s great but as a reminder of what Pixar can do once it abandons formula, it’s even better.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Every generation gets the teen romantic comedy that it deserves, while older audiences look on with bemused horror. Still, there’s a place for competently executed formula, especially when the details are crafted with an almost-anthropological flair for conveying the flavour of the time. Here in The DUFF, a well-worn high-school romance plot is dusted off and given Social Media trappings, as a likable but (relatively) plainer-looking teenager discovers that she’s the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” to her other friends. Throwing (relatively) here is crucial given that lead Mae Whitman is far from being ugly or fat, something that even the film acknowledges it in terms that go beyond Hollywood logic. In fact, The DUFF earns its place among second-rung High School comedies by showing a good self-awareness, a willingness to tackle old problems in new guises (i.e.; cyberbullying), Whitman’s very likable performance and a steady forward narrative rhythm that means few dull moments. The DUFF can’t completely escape the shackles of its chosen structure, and much of its final act is strictly routine. But for a while, it’s fun, funny, and maybe even revealing of the ways that teenagers are navigating the new social landscape with smartphones grafted to their sides.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) I know of the HBO show Entourage despite never watching it, which puts me in a strange position when trying to figure out its movie adaptation. The basics are easy to puzzle out: Here’s one successful actor; one manic agent; three hangers-on; industry satire; obvious Hollywood wish fulfillment for young men… I could see how it would work, if it weren’t that I found few of the main characters to be interesting or sympathetic. Oh, I’ll agree that Jeremy Piven is a force of nature as an uber-agent (his helicopter assault on a business meeting is everything I’d expect from a powerhouse like his) and Adrien Grenier is halfway interesting as an actor who manages to direct a great movie. The rest are annoying. (Rhonda Rousey isn’t much of a thespian, even though this is her best performance to date.) The film’s misogyny is repellent enough, but the boys-will-be-boys shtick is its own brand of exasperating as well. Entourage’s Hollywood satire isn’t particularly biting (although I’m thinking that after five seasons of the TV show, much of it has already been done) and the general humour doesn’t fly all that well either. Some of the wish-fulfillment does work (especially considering the swank locations, prototype car and sunny California weather) but that’s a meagre return for a film that’s more confounding than anything else for those who are not already a fan of the series.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) It’s a good time to be a hard-Science Fiction fan. After decades of repeating that there were no hard-SF movies (save for maybe parts of 2001 and Contact), here are Gravity, Interstellar and now The Martian in successive years to prove us wrong. The Martian has the added benefit of being perhaps the warmest and the purest hard-SF of the three, blending a likable character with reams of effortless exposition about the technical details of being stuck alone on Mars, years away from any potential rescue. Much of the story plays like an endless series of problem-solving mini-dramas, which is closely aligned with the basic ethos of hard-SF. Matt Damon is very, very good in the title role, alone on-screen for a chunk of the story, separated from the rest of the cast. But director Ridley Scott is the one who excels here, delivering his most purely enjoyable film in a long while, making the most out of a terrific script by Drew Goddard that faithfully adapts Andy Weir’s page-turning novel. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Manuel Pena make great impressions in smaller roles, while the special effects work is dazzling. A note should be made of the film’s use of pop music, from cheap shots at disco (leading to an apt spot for “Staying Alive” during the end credits), to a spellbinding montage set to David Bowie’s Starman. Such touches help humanize a script that easily could have been far too dry (in the manner of so many hard-SF novels written by scientists) to attract popular acclaim. Fortunately, The Martian seems to have hit the right chords: It was a massive commercial and critical success, paving the way for similar movies. The drought of hard-SF on-screen may have lasted decades, but chances are that it’s down for good.
(On Blu-ray, January 2016) After watching Straight Outta Compton, I wish my knowledge of Hip-Hop history was just better enough to let me enjoy the film as more than a detached biography. While the very broad strokes of N.W.A.’s story are familiar, I’m sure I would have gotten a lot more out of Straight Outta Compton had I actively enjoyed the music at the time. Moments such as when N.W.A. first hear Ice Cube’s diss-track “No Vaseline” play well on-screen as dramatic sequences, but they work even better as validations of what viewers already knew. Oh well; at least I can testify about the film’s effectiveness at presenting N.W.A.’s rise, success and tragic end, along with tendrils of sub-stories into other West Coast Rap characters, not the least being Suge Knight’s demonic presence. Competently directed by F. Gary Gray (who finally seems back on track after a few disappointing films), Straight Outta Compton can depend on two fantastic performances: Jason Mitchell as the doomed Easy E, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. channelling his own father as Ice Cube. (There’s something both awesome and endearing about Ice Cube’s character watching his kids play in the yard when we know that one of them is now Ice Cube himself.) Some sequences are terrific (not the least being the band defying the police’s specific orders not to feature a controversial song, then being arrested for it) and the film feels richer the more you’re familiar with the source material. Given Straight Outta Compton’s unexpected commercial success, a series of related pictures about Hip-Hop history is nearly assured and I’m fine with that. Just let me catch up on a few years’ worth of rap music and I’ll be good to go.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a parent, you get to see the weirdest things, and I’m being completely honest when I say that Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked was nowhere my radar of things to watch. But daddy proposes and kitty decides, so that explains what I’m doing watching animated chipmunks sing to popular songs while landing on a deserted island. What’s even less probable is that I ended up enjoying myself. Oh, this isn’t particularly sophisticated filmmaking or even particularly refined comedy. The film is for kids, the jokes are obvious, the actors taken pleasure in hamming it up (with particular props to David Cross as a Chipmunks-hating antagonist and Jenny Slate as a castaway steadily getting crazier as the film advances. I knew practically nothing of the series beyond gagging at the trailers for the first two movies, but it’s not hard to quickly pick up on the basics. The rest is too cute to be angry, as the CGI animals blend with the otherwise live-action movie. (As noted elsewhere, this is practically a subgenre by now.) There are enough chuckles here to make the experience enjoyable by adults, and the bouncy musical numbers (including a predictable final rendition of “Survivor”) will keep the kids hopping. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked is a cartoon, it’s fun and it’s not entirely insulting. My standards for kids’ movies are age-appropriate.
(On TV, January 2016) I wasn’t expecting this second G.I. Joe movie to be any good after the entirely dumb 2005 film, but it turns out that G.I. Joe: Retaliation definitely has its share of strong moments. A number of action scenes hold our attention, although the result ends up being limited by the silliness of its original material. Continuing where the first instalment stopped, Retaliation has the halfway-gutsy charm of starting with an impostor playing the role of US president and killing off the lead character of the previous movie within minutes, leaving Dwayne Johnson to lead the rest of the film. A few good sequences, such as the prison visit/breakout (anchored by the instantly compelling Walter Goggins) and a demented cliff-side battle, do much to remind us that we are watching a grander-than-logic action film ready to go all-out on big stunts. Unfortunately, Retaliation suffers from a much duller conclusion, blunting what could have been much more enjoyable throughout. It doesn’t help that for every time we’re shown actual combat equipment or quasi-believable refinements, the film shoots itself again in the foot by reminding us of how silly it is, with juvenile code names (Can anyone call someone else “Snake Eyes” in real life and not break out laughing?) and ridiculous plot developments. G.I. Joe: Retaliation almost tries to be more than an adaptation of a beloved but silly kid’s toy mythology. Alas, it is limited by its origins material, its willingness to please fans and its maddening lack of ambition when comes the time to commit to being more than a dumb action film.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) While Into the Blue wasn’t favourably reviewed upon release, it’s the fast-paced thrills-and-romance tropical adventure that it wants to be. Who doesn’t love sympathetic protagonists being stuck between two criminal groups as they hunt a lost Spanish treasure and discover a downed plane filled with drugs? With Paul Walker in the kind of charming-action-hero role he did best, Jessica Alba looking remarkably good, director John Stockwell capturing immersive underwater sequences and clean cinematography, this is an unassuming and enjoyable B-grade thriller. (It’s quite a bit more memorable than the similar Fool’s Gold, for instance.) The Caribbean scenery is used judiciously, the underwater set pieces successfully navigate a line between excitement and ridiculousness, everyone is ludicrously good-looking and there isn’t much time to get bored as the plot goes from one thing to another. This is not a great movie, but it’s an enjoyable one for what it tries to do. Keep your expectations in check and the result will leave you smiling and possibly booking a flight to the Bahamas.
(On TV, January 2016) Much has been made of Steve Martin’s migration from the world of stand-up performances to that of a movie actor, and nearly twenty-five years after The Jerk, mainstream comedy Cheaper by the Dozen does seem to be the end-point of that transition. As safe, predictable and family-friendly as it’s possible to be, Cheaper by the Dozen goes for the big populist laughs, the easy traditional values, the broad mugging for the camera and the most formulaic path from premise to conclusion. It’s (generally speaking) about a couple with a dozen kids, but it’s also (more specifically) about a man trying to hold a household together after accepting a new job and seeing his wife go away on an extended business trip. Its main selling point is watching Martin making exasperated faces as chaos reigns around him, then smiling the grin of the content family man once those little issues have been resolved. It does work reasonably well at what it intends to be: the kind of movie that no-one really hates, that can fit into just any cable channel’s line-up and which attracts practically no ill-will nor any lasting memory minutes after the closing credits. Fortunately, Martin is (or was, at the time of the film’s production) one of the best at portraying good dads, and presumably made quite a bit of money doing something far more reliable than stand-up comedy. The result may not be the fullest use of his talents, but who are we to second-guess such a successful decision? There’s a fair case to be made that Cheaper by the Dozen (and plenty of other movies in his filmography) would have been much worse without him.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) I have seldom seen a film commit so thoroughly to a deliberate continuous change of tone as L’écume des jours does. Adapted from a Boris Vian novel, this film charts the sad story of an inventor who goes from love to the loss of everything. It starts with a blizzard of whimsical imagination, realized through stop-motion, bright colours, delirious details and peppy protagonists. But when a major character falls ill and dies, the entire movie gradually withers with it: the sets get smaller, the tone gets bleaker, the cinematography turns dark and monochrome and then the film … ends. As a reviewer, I was confronted with a twice-deliberate (given its literary source) downer in which the conclusion is not meant to be better than its beginning. L’écume des jours seeks to be an unpleasant experience as it goes along, as it wipes off silly smiles with the grim inevitability of death by a frozen heart. It’s a meticulously calculated downfall as well, with casual violence weaved into the fabric of the film’s imagined world well before our main characters are threatened. The star of the movie remains director Michel Gondry, bringing his highly idiosyncratic vision on-screen in a way that no other could hope to achieve. A number of memorable scenes in the film feel unique. He gets great performances by Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou (in a role fitfully reminiscent of Amélie), Omar Sy and Aïssa Maïga as a secondary character who ends up taking striking actions. L’écume des jours is a beautiful but sad, hilarious and then tragic film—I won’t blame anyone if they decide to turn it off soon after the honeymoon, secure in the knowledge that it won’t get any better.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) I would have gotten a lot more out of Velvet Goldmine had I had more than a cursory knowledge of the glam-rock scene. As it is, I’m left to wonder how deep the parallels run to David Bowie and his contemporaries, and how to appreciate writer/director Todd Haynes’s somewhat free-form approach to the film. There’s a lot of stuff packed in Velvet Goldmine, almost too much so: The story takes place in an alternate reality where the United States have quickly turned fascistic, for instance, but very little is actually made of this framing device. The highlight is placed on a period ten years earlier, in tracing the rise and fall of a rock icon and his troubled relationships. I’m not sure how much of it is a film-a-clef, but it plays reasonably well to ignorant audiences such as myself. The music isn’t bad (and I say this as someone who doesn’t particularly like progressive rock), the cinematography is often spectacular, and actors such as Evan McGregor and Toni Collette get to show their wild sides as uninhibited rock stars. (Christian Bale, not so much—but it’s a different kind of role.) Almost twenty years later, Velvet Goldmine has aged pretty well as a twice-removed period piece. Watching it days after Bowie’s death is enough to give the film a sentimental value than I wasn’t expecting when I placed it on my Netflix queue.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Prepare your hankies, because Stepmom is determined to make you cry as hard as you can. The narrative threads are set up early, as the younger second wife of a sympathetic but featureless man (Ed Harris) can’t quite get the respect she wants from her stepchildren. Real mom is best mom, and so Susan Sarandon puts Julia Roberts in her place a few times to establish the narrative tension right before her cancer diagnosis is revealed. The rest is by-the-number sentimental filmmaking by director Chris Columbus, made fitfully interesting by a few hilariously unrealistic looks at fashion photography and adequate performances. Harris, Sarandon and Roberts can’t disguise that this is a very specific kind of movie. Everything plays exactly like we expect, and the result defies any attempts at deeper analysis or even sustained interest. Stepmom will appeal to its target audience and leave large groups indifferent. It is well made, but it is not worth more than a moment’s attention.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Jason Statham starring in a William Goldman script? Well, yes: Apparently, veteran director Simon West dug up an old Goldman screenplay and polished it to Statham’s persona, although the result remains more Goldmanesque than playing to Statham’s usual action thrillers. Taking place in the seedier corners of Las Vegas, Wild Card revolves around a British-accented hard-boiled bodyguard with a gambling problem. As the movie begins, an old acquaintance asks for help in exerting her vengeance, a new client wants pointers on how to be tougher, and our protagonist starts thinking about the amount of money it would take to get out of the business. Add some mobsters, a cinematography that practically lives in the seventies, a restrained number of action scenes and you have a movie that actually provides Statham enough substance to show that he’s a better actor than most people are willing to consider. The compromise has a cost, though: The few fights may not make his fans happy, and it’s certainly nowhere near thoughtful enough to aspire to art-house respectability. So it is that Wild Card often feels as if it’s sitting halfway between an action thriller and a gambling drama. There are a few good moments: In West’s capable hands, the fights are fine, Stanley Tucci has a very likable quasi-cameo as a mobster and Michal Angarano isn’t too bad as a nebbish millionaire trying to toughen up. Wild Card almost harkens back to an older era of filmmaking, not quite as rigidly bound by formulas and willing to punctuate drama with action rather than the other way around. But while the result may be fitfully interesting, it’s not enough to be memorable: it plays like far too many Statham films, as merely serviceable filler.