(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I’d like to give Boys Don’t Cry the fair shake it deserves. After all, this is a sensitive, haunting story about a transsexual encountering hate in rural America. It’s adapted from a true story, it doesn’t end well, it earned Hilary Swank a well-deserved Academy Award; it ended up on several year’s-best lists and it remains a minor cultural touchstone (especially given the renewed attention given to transsexual issues nowadays). In other words, it checks off nearly every significant box in the list of a good movie still worth seeing more than fifteen years later. Alas, this is not the kind of film that appeals to me. The languid pacing, small-midwestern-town setting, faux-reality style, self-important direction, showy acting and downbeat ending are really not my favourite elements of moviemaking. I acknowledge that Boys Don’t Cry is a good movie without feeling any personal affection for it: hopefully your reaction won’t be the same.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I remember that xXx: State of the Union got terrible reviews upon release, but watching the film lately is enough to make anyone wonder why the reviewers were so vexed. Of course, time has been kind to lead actor Ice Cube, who seems even more iconic today thanks to his anointment in Straight Outta Compton: Part of State of the Union’s charm comes from seeing his gruff demeanour clashing with the usual nonsense of a typical dumb action movie. It’s worth highlighting that Ice Cube has personality and the film distinguishes itself (even a decade later) by featuring it as best it can. There is some daring in State of the Union’s premise of a coup building against the US government, and a sprinkling of action sequences (especially a purely nonsensical but fast-paced bullet-train sequence at the climax of the film) are enough to keep things interesting to the end. Under Lee Tamahori’s direction, State of the Union is not a film that takes itself seriously, and so becomes one of those movies in which absurdities act as features rather than problems. It’s easy to feel some odd affection for it, especially if you’re already an Ice Cube fan and find much postmodern fun in contemplating an NWA founding member saving the US government from rogue elements.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I’m late to Amistad, but watching it explains a lot of Steven Spielberg’s latter filmography, most obviously Lincoln. (Although I suspect that I’ll understand even more once I see The Color Purple). While I could blather on about Amistad’s excessive length and slow pacing, that would be missing the point of a film that dares to show how civilized arguments can make better humans out of everyone. This movie believes in the rule of law, but doesn’t shy away from showing distressing scenes of slavery and torture. (Amistad illuminates Lincoln’s distant treatment of slavery by the explanation that Spielberg already showed the worst in his earlier film, and wasn’t keen on graphically revisiting the issue.) It’s a period drama but a handsomely executed one, featuring actors that were either at the height of their powers (Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman) or on the verge of stardom (Matthew McConaughy, and Djimon Hounsou in a terrific performance). There are plenty of other things to like: Amistad lets subtitles play a role in the way viewers feel the story unfolding, credibly shines a light in pockets of American history that people would like to forget, ends on eloquence (albeit with an explosive coda) and appeals to our better natures. I wouldn’t necessarily call it gripping or essential, but it’s easily compelling and worthwhile … and has survived admirably well the almost-twenty years since its release.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) There are a few things I really like in Automata: As a Spanish production, it has a sensitivity and flavour of its own; the practical special effects are impressive; it’s good to see Antonio Banderas in a lead role again; and it is deeply steeped into the 2014–2015 wave of movies pondering the coming AI revolution. On the other hand, I’m not so enthusiastic about much of the rest. The world building is absurd; the pacing is off; the plot threads lead nowhere interesting; and the film fails to do much with its own invented rules. “Life finds a way” is a dull foundation on which to base an artificial-intelligence thriller these days, and Automata, at times, seems to be boldly rediscovering Science-Fiction notions that were old-hat in 1980s SF movies or 1960s written SF. The ending is a let-down, some of the plot development are gibberish and Banderas doesn’t even get a capable foil to play against. While I started watching Automata with the best intentions, the film itself gradually ate away at my reserves of goodwill until the best I could say was a variation on “well, it’s a good effort”. On the other hand—a robot science-fiction movie from Spain? How rare is that? Shouldn’t we be happy that it even exists?
(Crackle Streaming, February 2016) As far as horror thrillers taking place in murderously dangerous backwater settings go, Vacancy is perhaps more noteworthy for what it doesn’t do. Considering that the plot has to do with an estranged couple being stuck in an isolated motel used to film snuff movies, you would expect the film to be very explicit in its gory violence. But while some sequences in Vacancy are indeed disturbing, it remains reasonably light-footed in its depiction of gore. Thankfully, the result is to bring the focus back on the lead couple’s growing dread rather than in-your-face disgust at the sight of bloody mayhem. It makes the rest of the film’s growing tension more effective and helps distinguish Vacancy from countless other very similar films. It helps that Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale deliver performances anchored in reality: While Vacancy gets crazier by the minute thanks to director Nimród Antal, it does start with a fairly astute first few minutes that cleanly establish the protagonists before dropping them into a long nightmare. Several sequences help answer basic credibility questions about the nature of the premise (as in: why “Run, you fools!” isn’t an answer) and the thrills keep going during the appropriately short duration of the film. While Vacancy is no classic, it has survived well as a competent genre exercise. It could have been far, far worse.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) There’s a sub-genre of movies that could be called (for lack of a better name) “forgettable romantic comedies featuring up-and-coming movie stars”, and That Awkward Moment is a perfect addition to that canon. Its most noteworthy feature is that it stars Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zack Efron—while the third is already a star in his own way, Teller and Jordan both have other movies (Creed, Whiplash) that hint at their true acting talent. Here, they’re not actually asked to do any dramatic heavy lifting: the film coasts a long time on their basic charm, even as their characters aren’t particularly admirable. Another romantic comedy for men that celebrates immaturity and boorishness, That Awkward Moment is perhaps best appreciated as a fake-anthropological study of young males on the cusp of romantic responsibility, although by the time the Hollywood process is done with the film, there’s nearly nothing authentic left to see. Various bits and pieces work; other bits and pieces are just puzzling or unpleasant given the casual misogyny of the script. Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis do well as the female matchups for the male protagonists, and as usual in these kinds of films they’re far more level-headed and sensible than our nominal main characters. It doesn’t amount to much: by the end, That Awkward Moment is slight enough to escape making any lasting impression other than a vague feeling that this isn’t going to be one of the films that Jordan or Teller will highlight once they become authentic megastars.