(On Cable TV, February 2016) It quickly gets obvious that Welcome to Me isn’t meant to be a conventional laugh-fest. Specializing in the kind of cringe-inducing comedy that seems all-too-popular lately, Welcome to Me wants to be an absurdist character piece, studying what happens when a woman with deep and complex psychological issues suddenly becomes (thanks to a lottery win) able to do whatever she wants in an effort to find closure. That “something” ends up being producing her own TV show, which she uses to relive her past, interview acquaintances, realize some fantasies and exact revenge on those who have wronged her. Nonchalantly wielding a chequebook to pave over any objections, she purchases the services of a struggling production studio and goes wild in conceiving and hosting the show. In other hands, with other intentions, this could have been very, very funny. But that’s not what director Shira Piven and star Kirsten Wiig are about. As you may expect from Wiig (who seems to be adopting neurotic debilitation as a crucial element of her screen persona), the film induces one wince after another, smothering the comic value of its ideas into a heavy gauze of pitiable narcissism, enablers and aghast witnesses. The ending is more than a little frustrating, showing only incremental progress rather than the all-out catharsis that many would have preferred. Wiig actually isn’t bad in the lead role, which requires a lot more dramatic prowess than comic chops. But that’s in keeping with a film that is considerably sadder than it could have been had the intention been to go for a straight-up comedy. Maybe there’s another, very different film waiting to be made using this exact premise.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) 2015 has been a year heavy in spy movies, but most of them emphasized comedy and action at the expense of any halfway realistic look at the profession. Fortunately, here comes Bridge of Spies to compensate for this sensational excess. Written by the Coen brothers and directed by Stephen Spielberg in his more serious mode, Bridge of Spies is a fictionalized account of the real-life Cold War heroics of James B. Donovan, an American lawyer who, almost by accident, became involved in clandestine activities. Selected to defend a man accused of spying in the US, our protagonist (ably played by Tom Hanks, making the most of his everyman persona) ends up ably defending universal values against an American government trying to pillory a target. His troubles aren’t over once that’s done, given how he then finds himself travelling to Berlin to negotiate an exchange of prisoners at a time where the Wall is going up and no-one seems quite sure who to believe. Relatively low in action (although it does feature a harrowing sequence in which Gary Powers’ U2 is shot down over the Soviet Union), Bridge of Spies makes up for it in portraying its hero as a man with a briefcase and strong principles. Mark Rylance provides crucial support with a laconic performance as a curiously sympathetic spy. At times, Bridge of Spies does run too long, and feels just a bit duller than it could have been. Compared to even the best of the other spy movies of 2015 such as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation or Kingsman, it feels positively adult, though, and that’s a substantial part of its charm. Consider it an antidote when you’ll be tired of seeing spies merely shown as gun-toting action heroes.
(In French, Video on Demand, February 2016) Argh. After Inside Out did much to revive faith in Pixar’s rising fortunes after a string of underwhelming films, here comes The Good Dinosaur to put those expectations in check again. The Good Dinosaur certain has its share of good and remarkable moments. As an animated film, it presents lush outdoor landscapes the likes of which have never been seen so far—the realism is so spectacular that the end credits, playing over landscapes, are worth seeing by their own. It’s even more of a spectacular breakthrough considering that the film often takes place against expansive landscapes, far from the closed rooms of much of computer animation. The script manages to pack some emotion, the characters are often sympathetic, the story is neatly wrapped up and it’s short enough not to bore. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur is also a very basic film: The story is straightforward in a way that Pixar movies never are, going through formulaic plot points in strictly linear fashion. It reuses a big cliché of kids’ movies, and seems to be focusing its energy on fully realizing its landscape rather than buff the script. There are occasional touches of humour (“This is Dreamcrusher. He protects me from having unrealistic goals.”) that paradoxically remind us that this isn’t much of a funny film nor a particularly witty one. It is, in other words, a perfectly competent film that does not reach the next level that Pixar regularly achieved at their best. After Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur a disappointing retreat but hopefully not a sign of Pixar’s future—although their sequel-heavy upcoming slate isn’t exactly a good sign.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) For years, rumours abounded about David O Russell’s famously abandoned film Nailed: Despite featuring known actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel), an amusing premise and a decent budget, complex issues during the production of the film made it unravel before principal photography was completed. The almost-finished film languished for years, the director publicly disowning it while investors and producers tried to find a way to complete it. Many, including the director and its stars, had given up hope of seeing it (it’s even featured in the book The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See). But then, something happened and something like Nailed made it into the wild. But that something is not a successful film. Despite a few comic set pieces (a dinner opening sequence, Kirstie Alley as a living-room surgeon, an abrupt tryst that mangles presidential portraits, the Girls Scouts revealed as an incredibly powerful lobbying organization), Nailed! (or Accidental Love, as it’s known in the US) has the feel of, well, an unfinished film. Crucial narrative tissue seems missing or botched (witness the pivotal “nailing accident” scene, crudely stitched together from what looks like other bits and pieces of the film), the script never being able to tie up its loose ends. In other words, it feels exactly like a film that had to be released without the luxury of reshoots and fine-tuning. It’s certainly worth a look for fans of the main actors—Jake Gyllenhaal looks really young as a somewhat naïve congressman wearing too-big suits, while Jessica Biel is often too charming for words as a small-town waitress with a debilitating neurological problem. As a curiosity, it should satisfy film pundits who heard about the film for years without quite knowing if they’d ever see it. But Nailed is not a film that stands up on its own without the attraction of its back-story. I have a feeling that, some day, someone is going to write a tell-all article or put together a revealing documentary about the making, unmaking and remaking of this botched film, and it’s going to be far more interesting than the movie itself.
(On TV, February 2016) Given my advancing age and perennial lack of coolness, I’m not really allowed to grumble and complain about the entertainment served to kids these days. But I can’t help it: While I approached Rise of the Guardians with the best intentions, something annoyed me about its Jack Frost protagonist and his portrayal as a super-kewl rebellious character (who, admittedly, learns better). It feels straight from the Big Corporate Book of Pre-teen Cultural Appropriation, and cheapens what was otherwise an interesting premise for a movie. The basic idea that various mythical figures (Santa Claus, Easter Rabbit, The Sandman, The Tooth Fairy) band together to protect kids from evil forces is interesting in its own public-domain-mash-up fashion. Elements of the characterization (Claus as a battle-hardened lumberjack figure, Sandman as old and mute) are interesting, and while the character design is a bit off-putting, there’s some invention to the film. But then walks in Jack Frost, all attitude and myopic narcissism, and he’s presented as an insufferable hero well before he gets to understand the limits of his initial personality. It doesn’t help that the film itself has the rote quality of 2010s animated film: loud action sequences (maybe a bit too scary for kids) set alongside too-busy world building. There’s probably a song or two in there as well, but Rise of the Guardians slips a bit too quickly out of mind to be sure. While not a bad film per se (even limiting ourselves to kids’ animated movies, there’s a lot worse out there), it’s a disappointment: the lead character is an irritant, and the result doesn’t seem to come close to the potential suggested by the premise.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) 2012 was the year that Hollywood offered two atypical takes on Snow White, but while everyone was busy criticizing the quirky Mirror, Mirror and the terrible Snow White and the Huntsman, low-key Spanish art piece Blancanieves passed unnoticed despite some striking qualities. Filmed in black-and-white, silent but complete with piano score and title cards, Blancanieves playfully sets the Snow White story in 1920s Spain, largely set within the world of bullfighting. As unlikely as this premise may sound, it pales in comparison with the liberties taken with the source material. In-between an abused disabled father, a passing glimpse of BDSM from the wicked stepmother, Snow White taking up bullfighting, romantic rivalry among the dwarves and a dark conclusion that strongly hint of sexual perversion, this is as far from Disney’s version of the story as can be. Much of it actually works: The quality of the images can be spectacular, especially in how it plays with light and shadow, as well as intricate period detail. There’s clearly something interesting, as well, in seeing writer/director Pablo Berger, with modern thematic concerns, play with the various limitations of a silent black-and-white film. Alongside The Artist (which was released more or less simultaneously), Blancanieves offers an off-beat grammar for film, one that hints at how things could be done differently even today. All of the above compliments being said, I’m not sure I’d take the final step of encouraging most people to seek out and see the film. I’m not sure that the transposition of the story is an entire success and there’s no way around how some elements of the story are troubling—none more infuriating than the ending, which seems to end on a dark note without delivering satisfaction. Blancanieves remains best appreciated by those who like a bit of strangeness—you know who you are.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The siege of Stalingrad is such a monumental historical event that any film trying to describe it is probably doomed to failure. The latest Russian attempt Stalingrad does manage to get a few things right, even though it falls short of providing an entirely satisfying experience. The problems start early on, as the opening credit sequence shows us a modern Russian cargo plane, which lands in Japan after a ruinous earthquake. It turns out that this is from a clunky framing story that creates more expectations than it fulfills. After a few more minutes, we’re finally back to 1942 Stalingrad, as five soldiers end up taking refuge in a strategically important building that has clearly seen better days. A (largely platonic) romance with the woman still occupying her apartment ensues, with a few subplots. Curiously, the battle of Stalingrad feels smaller given how the film chooses to constrain itself to a small area of the city. But whatever one may think about the story pales in comparison to the visual riches the film has to offer: From the first moments to the last, the visual polish of the film is astonishing, and the quality of the action sequences that the film has to offer is spectacular. Director Fedor Bondarchuk knows what he’s showing, and even in its small moments (say, in portraying how a formerly grand apartment has fallen in maddening decay) Stalingrad is beautiful to look at. This does much to compensate for a lacklustre script that hints but does not fully portray its subject matter: while the film may not be that good, it’s still worth a look for sheer visual prowess.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) The problem in trying to like Black Mass is that it’s based on source material (the life of Boston crime lord Whitley Bulger) that has already inspired the best version of itself in The Departed. Going back to present Bulger’s real story invariably leads to comparisons that aren’t at Black Mass‘s benefit. For a story with a quasi-unbelievable accumulation of crooked cops, tainted politicians and a bigger-than-life sadistic criminal, this fictionalized biography seems tame and conventional. Johnny Depp does turn in a very good performance as Bulger—for the first time in a long time, he disappears in a new character bereft of his usual tics. There are plenty of other good actors in smaller roles, but they don’t make as big an impression. This is Bulger’s biography, obviously, but the film doesn’t have as much grace and flow as we’d expect. Scenes seem to come out of nowhere, with Bulger’s moral devolution being explained as much as it’s shown. The Boston setting isn’t particularly gripping and the film’s cinematography seems pedestrian at times. The longer it goes on, the more Black Mass seems like methadone compared to the giddy rush of The Departed, and while that’s not exactly a fair comparison, it remains not to the film’s advantage.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) I thought I would like this dark comedy anthology film a bit more than I did, but it turns out that even my considerable misanthropy has its limits these days. A collection of six short movies about revenge, Relatos salvajes is deeply cynical even at the best of times. The first story (“Pasternak”) features an intentional passenger jet crash, setting up a high bar for how dark the film will be so that we’re not exactly surprised by the time more deaths violently pile up during the second instalment. (“The Rats”) By the end of the third story (“The Strongest”), a progressively dismaying story of road rage escalating, I felt my interest in the film slipping: If it was going to keep being as dark as it was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow. Fortunately, the fourth story (“Little Bomb”) picked up, largely because it stepped back from death and suggested how much life is to be found in well-executed revenge. The fifth story (“The Proposal”), in which rich people conspire to get a poor worker to take the blame for a fatal car crash, may be the most forgettable story of the bunch. But that’s fine, because the sixth story (“Until Death Do Us Part”) is a spectacular big finish set at a lavish wedding: It soon takes a turn for the worse, but by the time it concludes, we’re left to appreciate the romance of two badly screwed-up people truly finding their true nature. Writer/director Damián Szifron’s Relatos salvajes is not necessarily for everyone due to its wearying cynicism, but it’s curiously universal despite coming in a different language from another hemisphere. And if a story doesn’t do it for you … there’s always the next one.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The first Insidious was a welcome throwback to straightforward horror; the second one kept some of the thrills but presented a much duller result. With this Insidious: Chapter 3, however, we’re well into the logic of diminishing returns. The first warning sign is that it’s a prequel, forced to go back in time in order to keep Lin Shaye’s character alive and kicking. What we laboriously discover is that this third Insidious is meant to show how the demon-hunting team came together: No one apparently stopped to consider whether we cared. It’s not as if the nuts-and-bolts specifics of this third film’s plot actually matter a lot: Insidious 3 is routine even by horror standards, and has almost entirely dismantled what made the first-and-a-half Insidious so special. I forgot good chunks of the plot mere days after seeing the film even as I can still quote chunks of the previous instalments. Lin Shaye is good as the lead demon hunter, even if the rest of the film is unremarkable. But whoever expected a third instalment in a horror series to be actually any good?
(On Cable TV, February 2016) I’m halfway convinced that a good comedy could have emerged from Pixels’ premise: What if classic gamers were the only chance to save Earth from comically misguided aliens? Unfortunately, there’s no way Adam Sandler could have been associated with said hypothetical good comedy, because Pixels as it exists right now is a big misfire. You can see how the premise was corrupted the moment Happy Madison productions touched the picture, in how Sandler gives himself a middle-aged teenager’s role (hitting on divorcees almost as a first order of business), inexplicably presents Kevin James as President of the United States and keeps going in that vein. The absurdity leads to, and I’m not making this up, a human/alien hybrid that … yeah, I don’t want to talk about it. If Pixels is a predictable failure as a comedy, it can be partially redeemed as a special effects spectacle: From time to time, the aliens attack the earth with voxels and the special effects are actually fun to watch. The New York Pac-Man sequence is generally enjoyable, and there’s a bit of amusing chaos toward the end of the film, even though the climax compresses itself to a disappointing Donkey Kong sequence. There’s probably something interesting to write about how eighties pop culture is now entering its second nostalgic phase, but Pixels gives very little substance to discuss. After all, there’s a much better movie to be made from Pixels than Pixels.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) Every six months comes another silly Adam Sandler movie. Even if Bedtime Stories falls under the Disney banner, the choice to target younger audiences doesn’t affect Sandler’s humour all that much: it’s still juvenile and broadly obvious. The high-concept premise here has to do with an underachieving janitor discovering that bedtime stories have real-world effects, and trying to take advantage of those for personal gain. Of course, the real plot has something to do with Sandler mugging for the cameras, first in fantasy sequences and then again in the film’s version of its real world. Some of it actually works, as silly and asinine it can be. At times, we’re left wondering what Guy Pearce did to deserve being stuck in a dumb movie like this; at other times, there are a few good jokes in trying to link fantasy with reality. Sandler himself has his own kind of charisma, even though Bedtime Stories often feels like a too-late attempt to recapture some of his earlier less mature roles, limited by rating from going in his typical angry man-child persona. It doesn’t amount to much, though, and kids will be served by plenty of other better movies.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) What’s going on at EON production these days? Casino Royale was a modern Bond classic followed by the disappointment that was Quantum of Solace, followed by another hit with Skyfall, and now another disappointment with Spectre. Oh, Spectre does have its moments: From the technically impressive (but somewhat meaningless) long tracking shot that opens the film to various moments that show that director Sam Mendes knows what he’s doing, this is a slick blockbuster production with matching results. Everything feels calculated for maximum cross-promotional marketing opportunities and the images on-screen are never less than perfect. Perversely, this glossy surface polish makes the basic bone-headed script problems of the film seem even more glaring. No matter the accomplishment of Spectre’s images, the biggest problems with the film remain story issues. I can’t say enough bad things about the dumb decision to make this fourth Daniel Craig entry try to call back to the previous instalments, especially if they’re going to attempt something as cheap as introducing a villain with family ties to Bond, and half-heartedly trying to make sense of the mush that was Quantum of Solace. It suddenly makes the Bond universe feel small and cramped, unrealistic and petty at once. Spectre also mishandles a post-Skyfall Bond by not giving him a standalone adventure in the classic sense. After the character reconstruction of the previous film, we should have gotten a full classic Bond, not another rebuilding instalment as Bond (once again) goes rogue and his agency is (once again) destroyed. Skyfall was a once-in-a-generation reset: the same trick used in successive films is getting thin—and it doesn’t help that it highlights similarities with the far more entertaining Mission Impossible: Rogue State. The various plotting strands are also confounding: Some secondary characters disappear almost as fast as they’re introduced (giving Monica Bellucci a bare two scenes as a Bond Girl is borderline-criminal), the film doesn’t seem to commit to its own sub-plots and the ending earns the stench of an expected sequel by locking up its antagonist. (And don’t get me started on Andrew Scott reprising his worst tics from the Sherlock series.) One thing is for sure: The Daniel Craig years have been very strange for the Bond franchise, zigzagging between exceptional and forgettable Bond movies. What’s perhaps more confounding with Spectre is how the Bond series, which should be timeless and rely on its own time-tested formula, is now aping the worst screenwriting trends of the moments. Feh. But on the bright side, the next instalment should be better if we go by the series’ on-off pattern.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) In developing a sequel, there’s a difficult balance to strike between offering more of the same, and offering just a little more than the original to satisfy. Hotel Transylvania 2, for all of its faults, actually manages to find this elusive balance: By moving forward the story a few years later, and by focusing the themes of parental anxieties onto another generation, it refreshes its own themes while still offering many of the same attributes that made the first film a success. Adam Sandler once again reprises his unusually sympathetic vampire-dad character, now faced with the possibility that his grandson may not actually be a vampire. Various hijinks ensue, bouncing back and forth between Transylvania and California in a world that is obviously not ours given its broad acceptance of real monsters. The set pieces are lively and if the film does seem to lose its way during an unremarkable third act, Hotel Transylvania 2 gives audiences what they expected, and what they’re ready to accept. The series remains firmly ensconced in the second tier of animated features, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I wouldn’t call Mona Lisa Smile unpleasant or unsuccessful, but there is something easy and obvious nowadays in showing how a free-spirited teacher could liberate the mind of her students in a 1950s college for young women. We’ve seen this story many times before, and even acknowledging that this was a real social environment doesn’t do much to excuse a film that runs on autopilot most of the time. But, of course, Mona Lisa Smile is more interesting as a showcase for actresses than for anything else. Beyond Julia Roberts (who frankly doesn’t do much in the lead role), the cast includes half a dozen other actresses would either were, or would become recognizable names. Seeing them interact (often in spectacularly bitchy fashion) is its own brand of fun. The conventional nature of the film shouldn’t take away from the comfort offered by a film in which enemies turn friendly, contemporary values are upheld, every actress gets a small moment to shine and we get to spend some time in a past which, for all of its oppressiveness, was simple and understandable. All of this may sound demeaning without meaning to—even as far away from the target audience of the film that I can be, I still smiled and nodded at the film’s broad strokes. The final tiny twists mean that Mona Lisa Smile isn’t quite as obvious as it could have been, but let’s face it: this is a kind of film made for people who like that kind of film and it’s unlikely to meet more than a muted response from anyone who’s not already looking forward to what it has to offer.