(On Cable TV, April 2016) Any new Jean-Pierre Jeunet film is an occasion to be happy, even when they don’t quite work. While The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet doesn’t approach Jeunet’s finest films (the best of which remains Amélie), it still packs more visual inventiveness than any other three movies by other directors. The story is suitably eccentric, as the youngest offspring of a grieving western-USA family invents a perpetual motion machine (no points for hard science here) and sets out alone on a cross-country trip to deliver a speech in Washington. Shot in English in North America, this still feels like a very Jeunet film, marrying a quasi-retro vision of the world with frequent visual effects for a result that often tries for charm. For such a polished film, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet has flown under the radar for a long time and holds a few surprises: Canadian viewers will be surprised to see Rick Mercer pop us as a talk-show host in a film that also features Helena Bonham Carter (looking really good), and Jeunet stalwart Dominique Pinon. For all its qualities, though, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet doesn’t quite work as well as it should. Making grief a dominant emotion of the film undercuts some of its more whimsical moments, reminding us at odd times that there’s a big tragedy lurking under the quirkiness. It’s not easy to just sit back and enjoy the film, taking away what’s usually one of Jeunet’s strengths. Nonetheless, it’s time well-spent—the inventiveness of the film papers over some rougher moments, and any Jeunet film is enough to brighten a day.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) Anyone who goes into Ride Along 2 should expect nothing else than a watered-down re-thread of the first film. It’s in the nature of comedy sequels to play it safe and keep doing the same, so it’s not surprising to find out that this sequel does exactly that. Once again, the chemistry between Ice Cube and Kevin Hart remains the best reason to see the film, with much of the humour stemming from their respective characters interacting. Otherwise, it’s the kind of cop-comedy made countless times before—including the Miami locale. Even acknowledging this built-in tendency, Ride Along 2 is not particularly well executed: the set pieces are routine, the plot isn’t that intriguing and the film doesn’t have as much in store for surprises. Perfunctory and barely meeting expectations to the point of not warranting any extended discussion, Ride Along 2 will go the way of most comedy sequels: forgetfulness, followed by endless bundling with the first film in DVD collections.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) I must be watching too many thrillers, because I kept expecting The Benefactor to slip into one even as it does not intend to do so. The premise certain suggest that it could be, though, as a single rich older man fixates on improving a young couple’s life, even when they come to resent his intrusion. There comes a few points where another kind of film would have jumped the rails into thriller territory—the older man killing the husband, trying to get close to the widow, etc. But The Benefactor, as it turns out, is a drama about an older character trying to work through his psychological issues. It’s a story of redemption rather than obsession and Richard Gere isn’t bad at all as an older man trying to work his way through a terrifying amount of guilt. Much of the film plays with an uncomfortable undercurrent of tension, sometimes undistinguishable from cringing. It does eventually lead to a hopeful place, though, albeit the mannered way it gets there is almost enough to make anyone wonder how a straight-up thriller version of the base premise would have turned out.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2016) There’s not really any way to say this nicely, so let’s get it out of the way first: No Escape may not necessarily be a xenophobic film by xenophobic people, but wow does it play the xenophobia card heavily. What is problematic here is not a film in which an innocent American family finds itself stuck in a popular uprising hours after arriving in an anonymous Southeast Asian country. It’s a film in which the family seems to be facing hordes of anonymous foreigners that are specifically targeting them for violent rape and death. Even worse: Help usually comes from other foreigners, or natives that are in service to foreigners in a film. It’s hard to avoid a bit of unease at the way the film makes its points—especially in recognizing that some sequences work well exactly because of the way the film uses faceless hordes of bloodthirsty opponents. Amusingly enough, part of it probably isn’t due to intentional racism as much as a genre tool mismatch. Writer/Director John Erick Dowdle has a few well-received horror films to his credit, so it’s worth noting that some of No Escape’s best moments (an escape from a hotel under siege, soon followed by an escape from a bombed-out office) are straight out of zombie horror filmmaking. The equivalence of foreigners to zombies is disturbing, but that it works at a basic level may be most disturbing of all. Elsewhere in the movie, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell’s performances are sympathetic enough to paper over thinly written character and gain them some sympathy as parents in a horrifying situation. (The kids are also very good and believable as kids.) Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan shows up in a role that should be more substantial but somehow isn’t. No Escape does show a basic ability at presenting thrills and chills, but it would be so much better had it taken more care with its depiction of foreign characters. Then, at least, we’d stop feeling guilty for whatever qualities the film has.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) I only saw Ricki and the Flash because of “Meryl Streep as an aging rocker” and after watching the film, I can confirm that “Meryl Streep as an aging rocker” is pretty much the only reason you need. Here, Streep plays an older woman who has sacrificed everything (including a marriage and three children) to music. Her nights playing at a local bar may still be glamorous, but her days as a cashier aren’t. Things start to change when she finds herself drawn to reconciliation after her daughter goes through a suicidal depression. Much family comedy/drama ensues, with Kevin Kline playing back-up as her ex-husband. While Ricki and the Flash is written by Diablo Cody, there’s little here to wow anyone: Much of the film seems tepid, chugging along to a halfway-celebratory conclusion. There are some pacing issues, most notably in the last half-hour where the film slows rather than pick up to a conclusion. Streep remains the film’s best asset throughout, picking up a guitar and credibly signing in-between an unusually sympathetic of a woman who may or may not have screwed up her life. At least she can still sing and carry a tune, which is what the curiously pat ending stops at. Ricki and the Flash is obviously aimed at a particular public, meaning that anyone who falls out of it is likely to find it a bit lengthy and flat. Streep’s pretty good, though, if that hasn’t been said enough already.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) The incredible story of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 managed to walk a wire between the two towers of the just-completed World Trade Center, was so exceptionally well covered in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire that a docu-fictional take on the same event didn’t feel necessary. But get Robert Zemeckis in charge of The Walk, give him a decent budget, put Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role and suddenly, things look far more promising. Zemeckis, always impressively able to augment reality with special effects, here uses a joyously expressionistic tone to reflect Petit’s unbounded enthusiasm as his character (standing on the Statue of Liberty, a postcard-perfect view of pre-2001 Manhattan behind him) explains his life and the wire-walking caper. While some of The Walk’s first half-hour drags a bit (“Oh no, a flashback within a flashback!” is a bad sign in any film, and this one is no exception), the visually inventive tone of the film works well at keeping our interest until the film’s standout sequence, a vertiginous set-piece showing Petit walking from one tower to another … and then again and again, gently mocking policemen sent to arrest him, bowing to his audience and paying homage to the towers for making this stunt possible. It’s hard not to smile while watching The Walk, so infectious is Petit’s exuberant joie-de-vivre. Gordon-Levitt had a tough role in trying to come across credibly as Petit (the real-life character, as demonstrated in Man on Wire, is simply incredible), but he manages it well … and his Parisian French is so well done at times that I wondered if he was dubbed. (But no, it turns out he speaks French almost fluently, and worked hard at nailing the accent for his performance.) Combined to the physical component of his roles, it makes for an exceptional performance. Nearly as amazing is Zemeckis, seamlessly using special effects and practical sets to create now-impossible sights. The luminosity of the 1974 New York portrayed in the film is spectacular, and the camera moves enabled by the virtual sets are enough to make viewers agog. (See it on the biggest screen you can, unless you easily get vertigo) Perhaps best of all is the feeling that The Walk complements rather than duplicates or nullifies Man on Wire: It’s a terrific story, and Zemeckis had the required means to present the story as best he could.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) My memories of the original 1991 Point Break are hazy at best, but even approaching this 2015 remake nearly-fresh doesn’t do much to make it better. As a set of extreme sports footage loosely connected by a nonsensical plot, this version of Point Break is either impressive or dull depending on which aspect of the film is discussed. Reflecting its time, the version of the film is about spectacle more than plot: Director Ericson Core has managed to get some amazing footage in shooting the extreme-sports highlights of the film, whether it’s dirt-biking on Utah Mountains, surfing in Tahiti, wing-suiting in the Alps or cliff-climbing in Venezuela. At its most basic level, at least this Point Break has something to offer viewers on a purely visual level, and the fact that most of it feels captured without too many special effects feels like a plus. (The heavily post-processed coda is a bad exception, especially given how it concludes the film.) Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the connecting sequences, which barely warrant a look if you’re fast-forwarding to the next thrilling sequence: By taking the robbers/surfers of the original and making them super-extreme-supercool terrorists/adventurers, Point Break separates itself from reality but, perhaps more importantly, from the focus of the relationship between its two leads. Our supercool characters can seemingly master a dozen different specialties in time for their next death-defying stunts, in-between mounting complicated criminal activities that, frankly, don’t serve much purpose. It doesn’t take a lot to blow gaping holes in whatever this Point Break claims as substance, and regret that the emphasis on spectacle has effectively neutered the strengths of the original. Even the actors seem a bit lost: Edgar Ramirez, normally so effective, doesn’t have much to do here, whereas newcomer Luke Bracey doesn’t do much but being good-looking in the most generic way. For a film with a few dramatic turns, this Point Break doesn’t let emotional turmoil affect its characters longer than five minutes or so. The result may occasionally be spectacular, but there’s little doubt that few will cherish this remake for its handful of action sequences. The lack of an emotional centre will doom this film to a quick exit from pop memory.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) As a look at the events leading to the infamous death of Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009, shot in the back by BART police while handcuffed and offering no resistance, Fruitvale Station goes for gritty mundanity. As it follows the doomed Grant through the last 24 hours of his life, even the dullest, most familiar actions carry a portentous weight. Ordinary decisions, such as helping out a grocery shopper, or taking public transportation rather than a car, all lead to the fatal events of that night. The racial component of Oscar Grant’s tragedy is unstated yet never away, especially considering the roles played by the white characters in the story. One feels the weight of fiction in the way Fruitvale Station neatly follows Oscar as he tries to change his life for the better, but even the boredom and domesticity in the film’s 80 minutes eventually mean something. Don’t expect heroics when police brutality is on the line, or sweeping cinematography when the point is to focus, hand-held camera-style, on a single man. The result may not be gripping throughout, but there is a steady rise in tension cascading into an affecting climax, followed by a terribly sad extended epilogue leading to a final scene that is nothing short of heartbreaking. Three years later, Fruitvale Station has already been influential: Writer/Director Ryan Coogler has gone on to deliver the well-received Creed, and is now helming a superhero film. Rising superstar Michael B. Jordan carries himself with a remarkable presence and holds his own against veteran Viola Davis. Fruitvale Station certainly isn’t fun or entertaining, but it does fill an essential and too-often ignored role in showing how movies can comment on recent history, reflect social realities and, in their own fashion, deliver an emotional punch on behalf of characters living in different ways from most film viewers.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) I have an inordinate fascination for underwater movies (the fact that there are not many of them helps), and this low-budget effort seemed different enough to be intriguing. Uncharacteristically not taking place in any military context, Black Sea is about commercial submarine operators, suddenly hired to go retrieve a sunken Nazi treasure. There are some corporate shenanigans, but they’re secondary to the tensions between the Russian and English crews aboard a quasi-disaffected Russian submarine. Still, for all of the promising hooks and the solid presence of Jude Law as the protagonist, Black Sea is surprisingly dull. It plods along with ugly cinematography, by-the-numbers scripting, a downbeat ending and a slack pace. It never quite manages to transform all of its assets into a compelling film, and feels much longer than it is by sheer lack of excitement. I wish that there would be more to write about Black Sea, but almost all of it boils down to “boring, boring, boring”. This being said, take note: This is exactly the kind of gritty, atmospheric, middle-of-the-road film that is highly susceptible to mood. Chances are good that you may like it more.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) If I have trouble getting angry about movie remakes these days, it’s because I grudgingly recognize that they don’t make the original go away. If they’re good, they earn their place in the sun. If they’re not, they’re forgotten quickly and the original remains the reference. But even relatively competent remakes can fall in the last category, as proven by 2015’s Poltergeist. I ended up watching both films back-to-back in a single evening (sleeping very well afterwards—that’s how jaded I am) and the original still kicks the pants off the remake, even though the remake itself isn’t half-bad. More faithful than many remakes, the 2015 Poltergeist follows the same plot structure of the original film, adding a few technological refinements, compressing the pacing by a quarter and adding as much CGI as it can. It works insofar as the film is rarely boring even when seen immediately after the original. Some sequences, such as the drone “flight into hell” are even decent additions. But this remake has a mechanistic quality that is hard to ignore: It doesn’t try to ape the original’s intermittent goofiness, and you can feel the weight of 35 years’ worth of added Hollywood formula filmmaking bearing down to choke any accidental quality to the result. Sam Rockwell and Jared Harris (with a welcome appearance by Jane Addams) do relatively well as anchors despite erasing much of what made their original counterparts so memorable. That explains why, as much as this remake isn’t a bad film, it does have trouble justifying its own existence. It’ll do for those viewers who have trouble locating the original, but that original has a craziness that the normalized remake sorely lacks. In a few years, most people will have trouble remembering that there was a remake—the original will still stand tall as one of the movies of 1982 that are still remembered … and that’s saying something given how terrific 1982 was for genre films!
(On Cable TV, April 2016) I sat down to watch Poltergeist with some apprehension: Horror movies often don’t age well, and this one had a reputation for being heavy on special effects, which don’t always age very well either. I had dim memories of being scared of parts of the movie as a young kid (enough so that without quite remembering why, I started feeling queasy when I saw the steak moving across the kitchen counter…) but otherwise approached the film fresh. Fortunately, Poltergeist still works splendidly today. It’s suspenseful, funny at unexpected times and crazy when it needs to pull all the stops. The special effects are not bad, and if the film feels familiar (it probably codified half the story beats we now associate with haunted-house stories), it’s also just quirky enough to feel fresh. The early eighties setting now has a definitive charm, as do some of the special effects limitations. Interestingly enough, modern technology now arguably enhances the film’s sense of dread: When I was intrigued enough to wonder what a hand-drawn 1988 Super Bowl poster would be doing in a 1982 movie, I immediately used my phone to Google my question … and really did not expect the answer I got. (Also: That steak crawling on the kitchen counter scene? Still gross after all these years.) On a more light-hearted note, I was impressed at the unexpected humour shown in the film as a family playfully accepts the presence of paranormal forces in its house (before a family member disappears, that is), and even more impressed at how the movie pulls out all the stops when it’s time for stuff to get completely crazy, either at mid-movie or during the all-out finale. Never mind that the various scares don’t really amount to something cohesive given the premise of the film: it’s thrilling enough to paper over any objections. The directing helps: Tobe Hooper may be listed as the director, but there’s a definitive early-Spielbergian quality to the result that practically makes the movie a full entry in Spielberg’s filmography. Of the actors, Craig T. Nelson is very good as the fatherly anchor of the film, with young Heather O’Rourke being iconic as the young Carol-Anne. Poltergeist is still fairly well-known today for a good reason: it has aged very well and even its competent 2015 remake makes it look even better.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2022) I wasn’t really planning on re-watching all of Poltergeist: given that TCM was giving it a prime-time spot, I was only planning on checking out the host presentation. But with Halloween around the corner and a few chores to do within TV distance, I let the beginning of the film play… and gradually found myself seduced all over again by the results. Say what you want about some dated effects and the greater familiarity of horror movies these days, there’s something simply hypnotic to the way director Steven Spielberg Tobe Hooper handles a rather good script. I still love, perhaps even more than upon first viewing, the humour that permeates the film from beginning to end, especially as we get a span of reactions of our ordinary suburban characters to the escalating weirdness. I like how the script skips over some obligatory-but-dull moments to show us the more interesting results of those plot-mandatory moments. I especially still love how crazy Poltergeist gets at times, with an audio-visual chaos testing modern HDTV-broadcast compression algorithms. That last aspect is enough to get me wondering — hmmm, is it time to get a 4K disc copy?
(On Cable TV, April 2016) The first few minutes of Me and Early and the Dying Girl set expectations that the rest of the film struggle to match. I started the film intending it to be a background watch, stopped what I was doing to give it my full attention, then gradually drifted away to do other things. It starts in full grand quirky-comedy mode, as a sarcastic high-school loner tells us about his life, and how he’s almost forced to befriend another student diagnosed with leukemia. Glimpses at classic movie parodies virtually ensure that it is friendly to art-house audiences. But as the cancer theme becomes heavier, the protagonist becomes more annoying (lying to the audience doesn’t help) and the film starts spinning in well-worn plot tracks. From a decent companion to The Fault in Our Stars (which found decent humour and tragedy in similar material), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl becomes more detached and less relevant. It ends with a shrug (albeit a more annoying one than usual) after a strong opening, and it’s that sense of steadily lowering expectations that sticks more than any virtues that the film has. There are good touches of whimsy and strong emotions in director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s work, and I certainly look forward to what’s next from him. But I can’t help but be disappointed in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: even watching without expectations, I felt let down by its second half.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) Hollywood is known for dumbing down everything, but the positive spin on dumbing-down is “vulgarize”, and The Big Short does it exceptionally well. Explaining the financial crisis of 2007–2008 through the perspective of traders who bet on the collapse of the US housing bubble before everyone else, this is a film that sets out to explain an exceptionally complicated topic to broad audiences, using every means at its disposal. Other than a clever script that creates dramatic tension out of real events, this includes frequent asides to the camera, sardonic narration and nakedly didactic celebrity appearances. (“And now to explain mortgage bonds, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”) The result is nothing short of astonishing: The Big Short lays out its explanations clearly, entertainingly and doesn’t make many mistakes along the way. Even readers of Michael Lewis’s original book will be impressed at the amount of detail that writer/director Adam McKay manages to include in slightly more than two hours. For McKay, The Big Short is an impressive step forward that builds upon his work on The Other Guys’ end credits sequence to deliver a film that is outrageous and infuriating in the best sense of the words, while remaining a far funnier film than either Anchorman movies. (The helps that the film has a sly sense of stealth humour, from playing “Crazy” in the background of an insane explanation, showing how regulators jump in bed with banks, or how an assessor wears blindness-inducing glasses—removing them just in time to deliver some harsh truths.) This being said, the laughs in The Big Short aren’t from jokes as much as they’re from sheer bewilderment, that so-called smart people would be so astonishingly stupid. Or short-sighted, or greedy: As befits a complex catastrophe, the motivations in The Big Short are as complicated as synthetic CDOs. Even the protagonists aren’t too sure what to feel when they win by betting against logic, tradition and the respectability of the American economy. Steve Carell (as the outraged moral centre of the film) and Christian Bale both impress in roles that deviate a bit from their screen persona (to the extent that Bale has a screen persona, that is), with able supporting performances by Ryan Gosling and a barely recognizable Brad Pitt. It’s not a stretch to claim The Big Short as a public service—the limpid way it manages to explain the madness of an entire system is populist rage fit to justify mass entertainment as the modern jester. While not every trick it attempts works (McKay’s direction seems too deliberately off at times), it’s a fine, even impressive piece of cinema, as much for its ambitions than for how it achieves them. It makes a more than fitting companion to films such as Margin Call and Inside Job.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) I may have seen Misconduct a mere three days after its simultaneous theatre-and-VOD release, it still felt like an old-school thriller in many ways. The cast certainly recalls days gone by, with headliners Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino showing up for a few menacing scenes despite the lead role going to the rather bland Josh Duhamel. At times, the film’s twisted-but-straightforward plotting recalls a quasi-endless number of basic thrillers that used to fill cineplexes back when they weren’t obsessed with franchise instalments. Occasionally, there is a Hitchcockian vibe to the way the images and audio cues are used to alarm viewers. But little of it amounts to much more than a derivative, competent thriller. It’s not without its good moments: Hopkins and Pacino are at ease in roles that suit their persona. First-time director Shintaro Shimosawa can stage a few decent set pieces, although the film doesn’t quite sustain its energy throughout. The plot is a big bowl of nonsense: It works best when it quickly moves over its dullest moment (the beginning is particularly intriguing, at least until it becomes a framing device), but it trips over its own plot threads. The result isn’t bad: strictly speaking, there’s much worse out there with the availability of cheap thrillers on streaming and on-demand platforms. But Misconduct doesn’t amount to much, especially considering the calibre of its two best-known actors. At best, it makes for undemanding evening entertainment.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2016) I’ve said it before, but let’s have it again for emphasis: Three hours is forever for a romantic comedy, but that’s the way Indian cinema rolls, so it’s best to go along with it. As much as I liked Kal Ho Naa Ho in its best moments, the film halts half an hour before it actually ends, and the tonal whiplash of the movie, while integral and intentional actually takes away from the film’s comedy in its final poignant moments. Obviously, I liked Kal Ho Naa Ho far more as a romantic comedy than as the weepy tear-jerker it becomes later on. The film begins well with what feels like a modern directorial approach, as it dynamically introduces us to our heroine Naina (Preity Zinta, far more likable with glasses than without) living in New York, eschewing love while trying to tolerate a dysfunctional familial situation. Soon enough, two men are also introduced: stable friend Rohit (Saif Ali Khan, overshadowed by his co-stars) and fizzy stranger Aman (the ever-spectacular Shah Ruck Khan), who seems to be living in a different reality. Throw in the dance numbers, comic moments, emerging love triangle and multiple subplots and you’ve got the making of a typical Indian Masala movie, albeit one refreshingly set in New York and shameless about showcasing the city’s landmarks as the backdrop to its scenes. Kal Ho Naa Ho is at its most likable when it plays through the romantic comedy side of its checklist, fuelled by good pacing, decent comedy, incredibly likable actors, great New York scenery and terrific dance numbers. That energy flags in the film’s last half-hour, as incredibly preposterous plot strings are tied, leading to an intensely predictable conclusion that seemingly takes forever to unfold (and occasionally trips over itself in extraneous subplots). Still, even despite the less-amusing material and the lengths, Kal Ho Naa Ho is great good fun and it’s accessible in a way that many Indian movies aren’t.