(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) I’m constantly surprised at the number of romantic comedies that revolve around tragic material. In this case, Life as We Know It is a film founded on the brutal accidental death of a one-year-old girl’s parents—the laughs are supposed to come when two mismatched friends are designated as guardians. Will they overcome their initial disgust toward one another to bond with the baby and for a family? Of course they will—and part of Life as We Know It’s appeal is not only in the way the expected moments will come, but also in how it somehow manages to get laughs from a situation that’s more tragic than comic. Let’s not pretend that the result is an unqualified success: Life as We Know It is largely a routine film, with few surprises on its way through a familiar arc. The stakes are a bit too high for comfort (although the film does get a bit of emotional depth by taking the tensions experienced by new parents and cranking them up to 11) but the plot points are well-known. Katherine Heigl does herself no favours by taking on a very familiar character, work-driven and uptight to an almost unpleasant degree, while Josh Duhamel isn’t much more than a usual overgrown bro in a somewhat stereotypical take on a new father. Some of the supporting performance shines, though, whether it’s a pre-stardom Melissa McCarthy, Christina Hendricks (very briefly) or Sarah Burns as a quirky CPS case worker. While Life as We Know It emotionally zigs and zags a bit too much to be completely satisfying, it actually manages to build something halfway decent out of very strange elements. If nothing else, it may be of comfort to new harried parents looking for any affirmation that things could be worse.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) It takes a while to appreciate the no-budget aesthetics of The Battery, with its static camera, long takes, limited characters and meandering plot, but it works relatively well for a film reportedly shot for $6000 with a skeleton crew. The setup isn’t much more than the usual zombie movie setup, as our two protagonists travel through the empty rural areas of New England and figure out what to do after the apocalypse. The zombie menace is never far away, and finding other human survivors isn’t necessarily good news. While the first half-hour seemingly goes nowhere, The Battery eventually snaps into focus, leading to a tense and (occasionally) hilarious siege scenario that consumes much of the last minutes of the film. Writer/Director Jeremy Gardner also stars and turns in an impressive first feature: while the result doesn’t have the polish of bigger-budgeted productions, The Battery understands its limitations and works with them.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) Where to begin? Terminator Genisys is a big mess of a movie. Not that I care all that much: After all, I’m on record as saying that the first two movies of the Terminator series are bona fide classics, and that the third and fourth ones are nothing more than ascended fan fiction. This fifth instalment has the saving grace of being more ambitious than it could have been, but at this point the Terminator mythos has been trampled so thoroughly that we’re well into the degenerate phase of the franchise: everything gets remixed endlessly and the result is best appreciated as postmodern mush for the fans. Enough is enough: let the whole thing go! But that will never happen and given this certitude, the only thing left to do is to appreciate the good bits and moan about the bad ones. What works is Schwarzenegger being cast age-appropriately and the various contortions the plot has to go through in order to make it happen. The re-creation of the 1984 original is interesting, and so is the craziness of seeing so many temporal loops crashing into each other. On the other hand… Emilia Clarke and Jai Courteney are terrible lifeless choices for the iconic roles they’re meant to reprise. Jason Clarke does better—but while I like the manic episode he gets to play, it severely undermines that character he’s supposed to be. The dumbness of the film can’t be overstated, and its self-conscious status as the first in a new trilogy means that it can’t be relied upon to answer some basic plot questions, leaving them to a sequel that looks as if it will never exist as of this writing given Genisys’s tepid commercial success. (Forget Terminator 6: I want a movie about how the Terminator franchise is being sabotaged by time-travellers who fear that the next film will succeed and bring untold devastation to the world.) At charitable times, I’d call Genisys “interesting”—but at others, I’d call it overstuffed, under-thought, meandering and frustrating. The ruthless simplicity of the first film’s ongoing nightmare has been replaced by a tangled web of fan-service, while the themes and pulse-pounding action of the sequel have been muddled in generic action sequences and puddle-deep snark about modern technology. I would at the very least expect any new Terminator to have something to say about our relationship to machines. Otherwise, well, we’re back to ascended fan fiction.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) The disaster movie will never die. Indeed, buoyed by advances in special-effects technology, it will rise again and again, more overblown and chaotic than ever before. If you thought that 2012’s earthquake sequences were as good that they were likely to get, prepare to be amazed by San Andreas’s wide-screen mayhem as Los Angeles and then San Francisco gets thoroughly trashed by a number of unimaginably powerful earthquakes. Dwayne Johnson anchors the film as its muscular protagonist, equally able to commandeer a helicopter for personal gain as he is to fly a small plane and provide first-aid. All of which turn out to be helpful when comes the time to go rescue his daughter from the elements. San Andreas is, to put it bluntly, a fairly dumb movie: The laws of physics are ignored, logic is downplayed, characters a mere plot puppets and nothing is as important as the CGI destruction shown on-screen. Even for a blunt disaster movie, it sometimes overplays its hand: Paul Giamatti does his best as the voice of exposition, while Alexandra Daddario is overexposed in centre-frame as a curvaceous object of desire. (I wouldn’t normally complain, except that in this case, there’s something extra-blatant in the way the movie shows her off and her character is supposed to be a teenager. Also, I’m getting old.) On the other hand, San Andreas is a cunning movie: Everything is engineered for the wow-factor, from some spectacular moments in which major California cities are torn apart to showcase sequences in which a character runs (in a single long shot) to escape to a building’s roof while skyscrapers are toppling all around downtown LA. It takes more than a little ingenuity to cram that much spectacle in a single film, and both the screenwriter Carlton Cuse and director Brad Peyton have to be congratulated (if that’s the right word) for delivering a film so committed to the base ideals of a disaster film. While the result may not be respectable, it springs to mind as a demo disc to show off any new home theatre improvement.
(On TV, March 2016) Revisiting Oscar-winning movies twenty years after the fact screams for reassessment: What is truly the best movie of that year? Has it aged well? Does it still warrant attention? At times, The English Patient seems like a kind of prestige middle-budget movie that has disappeared in the squeeze between low-budget independent films and tent-pole studio blockbusters: A film with the budget to credibly re-create an era of history, and comfortably deliver a story that plays heavily on emotional nuances. Here, we hear from an adventurer as he tells the story of his love affair with the wife of another man, set against the troubled backdrop of World War II in northern Africa. Ralph Fiennes excels in the title role, first as the “English patient”, burnt beyond recognition after a plane accident, but also, in flashbacks, as a dashing explorer who gets involved with a woman despite the dangers of such an affair. The English Patient is a long film, made even longer by an oft-maddening framing story that never feels as interesting as the other one. It’s competently presented on screen, showing the romance of the time as well as its dangers. It’s tragic, of course, doing its best to feel even more important thanks to this tragedy. And twenty years later, it has survived relatively well. As a historical drama, it doesn’t suffer too much from less-than-cutting-edge special effects, and the star-studded casting is even remarkable today for showing a number of respected thespians as their younger selves. It had sweep, scope, dramatic irony and tragic heartbreak. Twenty years ago, that was enough to get you two handfuls of Oscars. Today, The English Patient remains a film worth seeing.
(In French, Video on Demand, March 2016) Part of me was dreading the idea of a CGI adaptation of Peanuts. There is such an iconic charm to Shultz’s penmanship that anything looking like the glossy plastic perfection of CGI felt sacrilegious. But it looks as if everyone involved in the film shared the same concerns, because The Peanuts Movie turns out to be warm, respectful and even innovative in the way it combines volumetric 3D animation with 2D comics-inspired overlays to produce something that looks and feels like the comic strip, but brought in a modern context. The story is simple but fit to hang a number of classic Peanuts vignettes, from Snoopy’s flights of fancy to a number of humiliations for Charlie Brown. The humour is often laugh out loud funny, and the charm of the source material shines through all the way to the classic music. While The Peanuts Movie may not have done blockbuster business, there’s a sense that it will endure as a family classic by sheer mastery of execution. This is one that both the kids and the adults will enjoy.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) Having inadvertently gone through most of Adam Sandler’s filmography in short succession (don’t ask why), I’ve been circling Reign over Me as a final pièce de resistance. After all, it’s often mentioned in the same breath as Punch Drunk Love and Funny People as the three movies showing Sandler’s range as a dramatic actor. Best to keep the best for last. As it turns out, the critics are right: While Reign Over Me isn’t a completely successful film, Sandler does get a good performance as a debilitated widower endlessly mourning his wife and daughters killed on 9/11. His aggressive man-child persona here comes across as pathological and off-putting, a cry for help that the film’s protagonist (Don Cheadle, as good as ever) seeks to answer even as he himself needs to change. Reign Over Me does overplay its melodrama at times, and doesn’t quite know what to do with its characters. (Sienna Miller’s character, in particular, feels like a punchline for too long in the middle of such a dramatic film, and one gets the sense that she ends up as a prize to be won.) There are tonal problems, the ending feels off in ways that don’t entirely satisfy and Sandler doesn’t get much to do other than mope and lash out in anger. Still, Reign Over Me often feels like a successful experiment. Even today, it’s one of the few Hollywood movies to use a specific videogame in a thematically appropriate fashion, and it has a dramatic weight that we don’t usually associate with Sandler. Congratulations to director Mike Binder for coaxing such a performance out of him and channelling his inner rage into a worthwhile character.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) Three hours is a long time for a romantic comedy: you can do a lot of thinking during that time, and that’s probably how I ended up liking Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the quirks of Indian cinema a lot better at the end of the movie than at its beginning. Oh, I’m not changing my mind: Indian movies still suffer from abrupt tonal shifts in trying to be all things to everyone and take forever to make basic plot points. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai itself isn’t above criticism, with blatant product placement, age-inappropriate actors playing high schoolers and on-the-nose dialogue. But while all of this is true, it’s also immaterial: Indian cinema has qualities of its own that outweigh its faults, and so does Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It’s warm, amiable, cheerful to a fault, not mean-spirited (the romantic triangle is resolved by one rival recognizing that he’s not the best choice and stepping away) and has both the strengths and issues of its chosen genre. The musical number are fantastic—I’m still humming the main theme weeks after seeing the film. Much of the comedy is relatively well done (there’s a fifteen-minute stretch midway through the film that has some funny mistaken-identity material). Shah Rukh Khan is terrific as the male lead, while Kajol is effortlessly likable as the heroine. The portrait of an Indian high school as if filtered through the American clichés is remarkably amusing. By the end of the three hours, we’ve been beaten into submission: What’s not to like about Indian cinema in all of its relentless sunny optimism? I’ll take it. I may wash the dishes while watching the film to make the time go by more meaningfully, but I’ll take it.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) I was willing to give Ryan Gosling plenty of chances for his debut feature film, but as it turns out there are limits to the amount of Lynchian surrealism that I can take, and he easily exceeded them during the course of Lost River. I do think that there’s something interesting in the film’s blend of quasi-magical realism, its transposition of a fantasy quest in a contemporary setting and the way some of the imagery resonates. It’s hard to watch the film and remain unmoved by the decay that it exhibits, or not wonder a bit about street lamps leading down to a lake. But strange imagery is best when it supports a solid story, and Lost River seems to lose itself in digressions, daydreaming and mean-spirited violence. I mean: If you ever want to see Christina Hendricks graphically cut off the flesh off her face, then this is the film for you. As for me: Ew. Taking place on a metaphorical level but not feeling like anything more substantial than a nightmare, Lost River ends up being moderately obnoxious even when it seems to be leading up to something. I gather that fans of cinematic surrealism will like this one better than I did.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) I watched this film with some reluctance: While Julianne Moore got stellar reviews for her role in this film, seeing a sympathetic character gradually disappear under the progression of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t exactly a cheerful topic for light moviegoing. As Still Alice inevitably walks toward a merciless conclusion, I wondered how it would manage to end gracefully without delving too deep into despair. It’s not an easy movie to watch: From the first moments, Moore’s character is established as someone with everything to lose from early dementia: She’s an intellectual, a mother, a woman who’s lived life fully and has earned her comfort. But when he’s diagnosed with a rare case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, everything gradually slips away, and even her considerable intelligence only hastens the drop-off when it comes. To be fair, Still Alice doesn’t dwell too long in cheap sentimentalism: it lets things play without drawing them out, and is capable of terrifying moments (such as when Alice meticulously prepares a self-destruction plan, to be triggered at a certain level of functional degeneration). Moore is indeed spectacular in the lead role, with surprisingly touching assistance from Alec Baldwin (not playing a complete cad, for once) and Kirsten Stewart (making the most out of her limited range). It amounts to an affecting portrait of a mind in free-fall, and the conclusion ends at what’s probably the last graceful moment of Alice’s life, letting the cruel business of physical death as a foregone conclusion. Still Alice feels even more poignant in learning that Richard Glatzer, the co-director of the film, had advanced ALS during its production, and died months after its release. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected, even though I could shake off the emptiness it created for a while.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) I watched this fourth Alvin and the Chipmunk movie without knowing much more about the series than a distracted glimpse at the third film, but don’t worry: not a lot of context is required to follow along. As a fairly representative entry in the “CGI animals kid’s movie” sub-genre, The Road Chip is almost exactly what you’d expect: A bit of mischievous mayhem, some musical numbers, cartoonish antagonists and broad emotional issues about what it means to be a family. It has a bit of synthetic charm: I still like “Uptown Funk” enough to smile at a jazz-infused chipmunk rendition, and some of the comic moments work just as well on adults than on kids. The antagonist is motivated by his hatred of the Chipmunk music (“the soundtrack to his breakup”) and the action moves swiftly from Los Angeles to Miami. The emotional stakes are obvious, but this isn’t the kind of film where we’re looking for something more challenging. While I suspect that adults may need an extra boost to hold their attention during The Road Chip (making paper snowflakes work wonders, I found), the kids are likely to like it a lot, which is sometimes exactly what’s needed.
(On DVD, March 2016) When I say that The Smurfs 2 seems more tolerable than the first film, I’m not arguing that it’s actually better. I’m probably just reflecting on my recent (re) discovery of an entire film subgenre: the kiddy-comedies that rely on computer animation to portray animals and magical creatures as actors in ridiculous adventures. I’m thinking about the Alvin and the Chipmunks series; the Beverly Hills Chihuahua trilogy; and many others following the massive success of 1995’s Babe. Set against the best of movies aimed at the younger set, The Smurfs 2 is a piece of trash: contrived, ridiculous, ham-fisted, almost offensive in how it assumes that its audience will accept anything. But set against the second tier of movies for kids, The Smurfs 2 suddenly doesn’t look too bad. While I still feel that its CGI portrayal of Smurfs is an abomination compared to the classic animated series, it doesn’t look all that bad against the live-action backdrops. (The less said about testicle jokes, the better.) While Neal Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays and Brendan Gleeson are wasting their talents in this film, they do bring a bit of respectability to the proceedings. (Hank Azaria, on the other hand, is perfectly on target as Gargamel.) Director Raja Gosnell is an old hand at this kind of filmmaking, so it’s not a surprise that The Smurfs 2 has a few relatively competent set pieces, playing to bouncy pop music. (I note, though, that the inevitably tragic end of the runaway Ferris wheel sequence is smoothly omitted) Am I, adult reviewer, capitulating against the film’s unbearableness by making comparative excuses? Almost certainly. But, for some reason, this one didn’t seem as awful as the first. And it’s got plenty of company in its sub-genre.
(On DVD, March 2016) Most black-and-while no-budget independent movies of 1998 have faded in obscurity by now, but Following has one crucial distinction: It’s the first full-length feature film by now-famous auteur Christopher Nolan, and considering Nolan’s rabid fan base, it doesn’t take all that much effort to find on DVD these days. Quite a bit of the attention is warranted: From an unusual beginning (a bored writer starts following people by accident, but is discovered by a sophisticated thief with existential motives), the film plays with chronology, motivations and allegiances. It eventually turns full-noir with femme fatale, elaborate double-crosses and greed-inspired plots. Making the most out of visibly limited means, Following works best as a promising calling card from a filmmaker busting to do better. While it directly influenced latter movies such as Memento (in its fractured chronology and noir affiliation), it still stands apart in the Nolan oeuvre so far. Following does have some entertainment value beyond simply being “Nolan’s first movie”—and at less than 80 minutes, it’s not as if it overstays its welcome.
(On Blu-ray, March 2016) At a time when live-action fantasy movies seem extruded from the same base elements, it’s difficult to overstate the refreshing impact of a more original kind of fantasy. Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t your usual kind of fantasy movie by virtue of drawing upon two different sources of inspiration: Diana Wynne Jones’s original novel, filtered through the unique sensibilities of legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. The result certainly isn’t perfect, and it shows clear signs of creaking where the novel meets the original material brought by Miyazaki, but it’s enjoyable for trying to do something unusual. Part of the difference is one of tone: Even though there is a war going on in the background of the story, much of Howl’s Moving Castle is concerned with domestic issues as basic as cleaning up, keeping a fire running and making meals. The heroine, a teenager abruptly cursed into the body of an older woman, keeps an impeccable sense of humour even at the worst of times. This is a very well-intentioned film: It’s hard to avoid noticing how it makes a sympathetic character out of an initial antagonist, and spends a considerable amount of time healing the emotional wounds of its title figure. As with much Japanese animation, the tonal shifts aren’t always smooth to western audiences. This being said, the English dubbed version is terrific and retains much of its accessibility throughout. The result is an animated fantasy film that may not be conventionally accessible to younger kids, but more than holds up as a fantasy film for older adults. While other Miyazaki movies often earn more critical attention, Howl’s Moving Castle is terrific, even when considered as a relatively less important entry in his filmography.
(On Blu-ray, March 2016) As a deceptively simple story of state espionage targeting a sympathetic man, The Lives of Others doesn’t waste much time in evoking two distinct sets of terrors in any contemporary viewer. The first, most obvious one, is the renewed appreciation that by 1984, the most nightmarish aspects of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four were alive and shamelessly practised in Eastern Germany, creating terror, setting neighbours against each other and ruining lives. The second, most unsettling one is the easy transfer of these activities to a modern context, at a time when any electronic device is suspected of being used by national security organizations. It really doesn’t take much to fear what a badly intentioned government could do with the capabilities now made available by the smartphone age. The Lives of Others keeps much of its understated power when set against that cold realization. The story itself isn’t complicated: when a high-ranking party official decides to target a writer for purely personal reasons, the state basically starts keeping intimate tabs on the man, and only the scruples of a mid-ranking civil servant can prevent his complete destruction. The rhythm of the story is slow, but it builds up to a very good third act, as well as a quiet act of rebellion that somehow seems more heroic given how much it costs the protagonist. Good performances (especially from Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck) bolster a savvy script from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that takes us deep inside 1984 East Germany and the inner working of the Stasi. Comparisons with modern tools of the state are left as an exercise for the readers, albeit with a chilling reminder: The fictional heroics of The Lives of Others depend on personal integrity and human decisions. But modern surveillance systems try their best to evacuate the unreliability of the human elements…