(On Cable TV, May 2016) It would be far too easy to dismiss The Intern based on conventional expectations. As with nearly all of writer/director Nancy Meyers’s films, this is mild-mannered drama featuring rich white people, with absurdly privileged stakes and a near-absence of conflict. It would be equally easy to expect the worst from Robert de Niro (who, in fifteen years, has completed his transformation from a vital dramatic actor to a walking punchline), be annoyed by Anne Hathaway playing a dot-com entrepreneur or complain about the expected life lesson of “old people have much to teach to the younger generation”. Once you’ve completed your pre-viewing gagging, though, have a look at the film, because The Intern is quite a bit better than expectations would suggest. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Robert de Niro, who actually manages to turn a good and poignant performance as a seventy-year-old widower returning to work out of sheer boredom. Once the obvious jokes about technology have been made, the film is free to explore notions of old-school masculinity in a modern context, and de Niro makes for a splendid role model given how he’s not asked to parody his usual persona. (One notes that the role was originally planned for Michael Caine.) The script’s gentle rhythm feels like a welcome change of pace for mainstream comedies, and there are a few highlights here and there: Rene Russo pops up as a love interest (ten years younger than de Niro, but that’s still not too bad), a few scenes of physical comedy are funnier than expected and the film does get better as it goes along. There are a few weaker moments, many of them having to do with an infidelity subplot, but The Intern defies expectations by being better than it should have been. It will work better on viewers who are ready for another Meyers film—her style may not be conventional, but her movies often act as breaks from routine. While The Intern may not set audiences ablaze or age very well (the dot-com chatter alone may date the film within a few years), it does what it intends to do and tries to do something easily dismissed but rarely attempted in mainstream Hollywood.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) My expectations were pleasantly exceeded by this Dracula’s grandiose and overdone take of Bram Stoker’s classic. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the film’s blend of pre-digital special effects, unabashed naughtiness, over-the-top direction (thanks to Francis Ford Coppola), melodramatic acting and scenery-chewing restlessness made it feel remarkably fresh even twenty-five years later. Adapting the epistolary Stoker novel will always be difficult, but Dracula gives it a spirited go, with a blend of various techniques to evoke the letters of the original, operatic visuals, dramatic dialogue and go-for-broke modernity. The special effects are made even better by the lack of a digital safety net, but Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins provide all of the film’s spectacle via consciously overdone acting. The film has far more sex appeal than I’d expected, laying bare the Victorian metaphors and double entendres that were in the novel, and making good use of Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost. (Plus, hey: an early role for Monica Bellucci.) The sour note here remains Keanu Reeves, earnest but sleepwalking though a role that demanded far more energy. Still, this Dracula is a lot of fun in its own devilish way, and it’s this eagerness to be as flamboyant as possible that makes the film still well worth seeing a quarter of a century later.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) Given how I really, really liked the first Zoolander as a clever silly comedy, I expected more of the same, even from a belated sequel. Alas, this Zoolander 2 seems to be taking its cues from its moronic protagonist in becoming dumber and far less clever. The obvious lesson here is that this sequel, fifteen years later, should not have been put in production: Given the original’s cult success, the follow-up was doomed to paralyzing levels of self-awareness. It doesn’t matter if the list of cameos reaches in the mid-double-digits: much of the plot feels perfunctory, with celebrity walk-on taking the place of actual humour. The first few minutes don’t start things promisingly, as a quick recap of Zoolander’s life piles on one tragedy after another. The rest of the film doesn’t have much more wit or cleverness: the fashion industry satire feels perfunctory, and writer/director/star Ben Stiller’s performance, in either one of his three realms, isn’t much more than serviceable. The rest of the film is hit-and-miss, some mildly amusing jokes being dragged down by the rest of the film’s scatter-shot approach. It may be that it’s impossible to re-bottle what had made the first film click—it may also be an acknowledgement that the first film’s success was specific to a certain audience, and that I’m not part of it any longer. No matter the reason, Zoolander 2 still feels like a disappointment, and another entry in the growing list of examples showing why it’s often better to leave comedy classics alone.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) I wasn’t expecting much of this young-adult horror/comedy book series adaptation, and that may explain why Goosebumps feels surprisingly successful. The big creative decision that makes the film better than expected is a surprising willingness to make author R.L. Stine a character—playing up postmodern metafictional elements, the plot has Stine losing control over his manuscripts and his imagined creations escaping into a small town. The result isn’t particularly terrifying, nor overly comic, but it holds enough attention to make the viewing look like less of a chore for those who don’t fit in the original series’ target audience—or latter-generation nostalgic appeal. Jack Black makes a return to comedic form as Stine, while the special effects make up most of the film’s remaining characterization. There is a nice little fillip regarding one of the characters later on, which is as daring as the script allows itself to get. It almost goes without saying that fans of the book series will get a lot more out of the film—but Goosebumps is accessible enough to be interesting even to those who haven’t read the originals. While the tone could have been handled more consistently, it’s a tricky balance between the demands of horror-for kids, comedy and the usual requirements of a Hollywood movie. Given those competing demands, Goosebumps may be as good as it would have been, and the result will surprise more than one casual viewer.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) I must have first watched Point Break on TV sometime during the mid-nineties, but revisiting the film twenty-five years later reveals a stripped-down thriller that has aged into something of an enjoyable period piece. It helps that Kathryn Bigelow’s direction is almost timeless, using both snappy editing and long shots (such as the FBI office scene) to effectively make the most of its moments. The great action sequences complement a serviceable plot template that has been copied a few times—I’m looking at you, The Fast and the Furious. Keanu Reeves is practically iconic as the standoffish Johnny Utah, while Patrick Swayze remains effortlessly cool as the antagonist. There is, as pop culture has noted in the past twenty-five years (hello, Hot Fuzz), a considerable amount of overdone melodrama in the result—but that quality, paradoxically, has helped Point Break remain distinctive even today. The early-nineties details are now charming, while the core of the film’s execution remains just as sharp today as it was then. There’s now a “remake”, but it’s not really essential viewing.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) I’ll leave the scholarly analysis to others, but it’s possible that the gradual liberalization of drug laws in the US has something to do with the growing number of movies in which stoner aesthetics are blended with other unlikely subgenres. Or maybe it’s just Seth Rogen’s fault. No matter why, here’s now American Ultra, which takes a small-town chronic user and drops him in a Bourne-style action thriller. It’s not an accidental event, considering the protagonist’s repressed memories and other small revelations, but the result is along the lines of “what if a stoner discovered he was an unstoppable killing machine?” Imagine the movie it could have been, then temper your expectations, because American Ultra is a generic treatment of a promising idea, limited by its budget and (more crucially) a lack of willingness to do more than the usual paranoid “government’s coming to kill you” thriller with small-city drug humour … and not that much humour either. Jesse Eisenberg isn’t too bad as the protagonist finding out that his existence is a hazy lie, but Kirsten Stewart doesn’t impress much as his girlfriend. The script has a few issues (many of them having to do with Stewart’s character) but doesn’t try very hard to break out of formulas. Nima Nourizadeh’s direction does have a few flourishes, even though some of them are overplayed such as the flashforward framing device, or the epilogue-as-cheap-animation credit sequence. As with a surprising number of stoner movies that try to blend themselves in more serious genre, American Ultra’s level of violence seems grotesquely excessive, as if it hadn’t earned the right to showing that much gore in what should be a far more amiable context. It wouldn’t be so bothersome if it wasn’t for the cheap use of anti-government clichés such as assassin squads—not to spend too much time on my soapbox, but it’s trashy thrillers like American Ultra that normalize the idea of a government willing to kill its citizen, and I’m finding less and less to like about that. It’s also in the service of so little: no inspiring message about taking back government, more effective checks and balances or new roles in a digital surveillance age—just dumb drug jokes, a modern “forgotten prince” fantasy trope and bloodshed for all. Alas, American Ultra only amounts to something you’d watch late at night and forget about by the next morning.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, May 2016) I didn’t have very good memories of Dumb & Dumber, and a revisit twenty-some years later only highlights why: I don’t react well to deliberately dumb humour, and this film has enough of it to fill a trilogy. I spent the film’s first half-hour in an increasing state of self-loathing, wondering why I was re-watching it and feeling my IQ dropping every minute. Eventually (specifically during the diner scene where a seasoned criminal unsuccessfully try to kill the protagonists), I reached an equilibrium of sorts, and the film finally started feeling funny. Not exceptionally funny, but funny enough to coast until the end. Jim Carrey does deliver a remarkable performance (alongside Ace Ventura and The Mask, it’s part of his astonishing 1994 breakout year), and seeing Jeff Bridges abase himself so low does have an interest of its own. The humour is dumb enough that it’s easy to forget that two skilled comedians (the Farrelly Brothers) wrote this stuff, but some of the film’s more outlandish moments (such as the fantasy sequences, or the living-large segment) do show some invention going beyond the dumb humour. I’m not going to claim that I was seduced by the results, but Dumb & Dumber does become good enough to escape the confines of its chosen dumb-jokes subgenre, and it’s that kind of success that highlights a better-than-average effort. This being said, I’m more than OK with the thought that I may not have to watch this again for another twenty years.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) When Nicolas Cage started showing up in direct-to-video movies a few years ago, it felt odd but fun, as he was usually able to raise the level of a production just by showing up. But as he keeps working to (rumours say) pay off his tax debts, the charm of his regular appearances in non-theatrical movies is starting to wear thin. The Trust isn’t completely empty of fun, but it’s one more in an increasingly generic series of bland thriller that happens to feature an actor named Nicolas Cage without taking full advantage of his grandiose Caginess. Taking place in the low-budget areas of Las Vegas, The Trust features Cage as a forensic investigator who gets the urge to rob an illicit safe. Enlisting a younger partner (played by Elijah Wood, suitably nebbish), he sets up the heist … until everything goes wrong. While generally well executed, The Trust makes the mistake of going dark and gritty rather than cool and exhilarating like so many other heist movies. The ending couldn’t possibly be more downbeat, but it doesn’t come as a surprise after an increasingly grimmer series of events. Cage, as mentioned, delivers what’s expected of him but doesn’t do much more than that. Some of the film’s most intriguing plot threads are left unexplored, while it spends a considerable amount of time on far more familiar material. It’s easy to see why the result went straight to video—in an increasingly competitive theatrical environment, a Cage-neutered The Trust simply doesn’t have what it takes to warrant the trip out to the multiplex … but it may have just enough to justify picking it up at home for an evening’s entertainment.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) Even twenty years later, From Dusk Till Dawn still holds up as a reference point. It’s one of the first titles in any “which movie changes genres midway through?” discussion, it still presents a fine collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (who also stars) and Robert Rodriguez, it showcases a prime-era Salma Hayek and it’s completely crazy when it counts. I thought I remembered quite a bit from a first viewing in the mid-nineties, but it turns out that I had forgotten a lot since then. There are more lulls than I remembered (it doesn’t help that the plot is straightforward), the special effects are a bit cheaper than in my mind and I had somehow managed to forget that iconic final shot. I had also forgotten how dark-haired George Clooney carries the picture through sheer charm and energy, and how insufferable Tarantino’s character is. The moment where the true nature of the film is revealed still carries a punch, and the film’s constant succession of gags from that moment on is still enjoyable, much like the dialogue carries quite a bit of the film. (I’m fond of “I don’t … believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw, is … vampires.”) There is a good rock-and-roll rhythm to the film that propels From Dusk Till Dawn forward even today, and I’m glad I got to revisit it with just enough memory blur to make it fun again.
(On DVD, May 2016) Thirteen years after the original American Pie, the goal was to bring back nearly everyone associated with the series for one last (?) bash. Wisely embracing its entire cast of characters, American Reunion goes back to high school (sort of) to bring back everyone for a summer reunion. Some stuff seems out of place, such as a curiously vicious feud between our protagonist and some lunkheads, but in other ways American Reunion does make a more conscious attempt at recapturing the original. Interestingly enough, it does so in a context where it acknowledges the evolution of its characters, showing them married and mature while still hanging on to some of their initial wildness. Sequels that acknowledge the time between their instalments tend to carry more poignancy that those who don’t, and it’s this heartfelt sentiment that excuses some of American Reunion’s less compelling moments. Perhaps fittingly for the series, Seann William Scott’s Stifler is now a full-fledged member of the main cast, and he gets a victory of sorts in the series-old MILF feud. American Reunion isn’t at the same level as the first film or arguably the second, but it’s well handled enough to bring some joy still.
(On DVD, May 2016) This third entry in the theatrical American Pie series deviates from the first two in at least two fundamental aspects, one good and the other not-so good. On the good side, it does try to make its characters grow up: Our series protagonist is now ready to marry his high-school sweetheart, and much of the movie repurposes the good old humiliation-comedy framework of the series to the wedding shenanigans. It works, and provides a nice sense of continuity and meaning to the series. More puzzlingly, the film chooses to focus on a subset of characters and a scope that seems far more narrowly focused. It simply seems as if something is missing. It doesn’t help that Stiffler’s been promoted to a lead character and that he seems to be made even more obnoxious early on to justify his eventual redemption. His final screw-up is so contrived as to defy explanation. Still, there’s some good work here by Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott, a few capable set pieces (the gay-bar sequence works well, for whatever reason) and the spirit of the series carries forward even in a more limited scope. I’ll say one thing, though: American Wedding is now partially redeemed by the existence of a fourth entry (American Reunion) that returns more closely to the roots of the series rather than letting it end on such a limited note.
(On DVD, May 2016) To its credit, this sequel to American Pie doesn’t take the easy way out of trying to do the same thing in college. Surprisingly enough, it returns to the same characters one year later and follows them as not much has changed in the interim. The action eventually moves to a beach house for even more rowdy fun, the same comedy engines powering this follow-up: one string of humiliation comic set pieces after another. (The fake-lesbian sequence is probably the film’s highlight, and it does manage a nice balance between lust and laughs.) Stifler’s back in an expanded role, Stifler’s mom’s return is highly anticipated, but most of the characters are back with various things to do. The standout actors are pretty much the same: Jason Biggs as the hapless protagonist, Eugene Levy as a well-meaning dad, Seann William Scott as the life of the parties. American Pie 2 isn’t quite as fresh as the first film, but it offers more of the same pleasures without too much fuss along the way.
(On DVD, May 2016) Everyone has their list of movies that other people can’t believe they haven’t seen (“What, you haven’t seen Star Wars?!?”) and American Pie was high on mine. For years, I thought I didn’t need to see the film because I felt as if I had seen it all already: Hadn’t I heard enough pop-culture references, suffered through endless imitators? But there’s no substitute for the actual experience of watching the film itself, especially given how it still has a charm that has eluded many of its copycats. It remains one of the definitive teenage sex comedies of the past few decades, focusing on the pursuit of sex as a rite of passage, and the conclusion that it’s not that important compared to love. Despite then-cutting-edge Internet jokes (early streaming humour!), it has aged surprisingly well, largely because it’s so heartfelt. The structure is squarely built on embarrassment set pieces, with comic sequences strung one after another within a solid but unspectacular plot. I am far away from the target audience for this film now, but it’s refreshingly free of smirking in how it treats its characters. Despite being male-centric, American Pie isn’t cruel to its female characters—in fact, the males usually take up the brunt of the humiliation, while the women are too smart to embarrass themselves. Standout performances include Sean William Scott, Natasha Lyonne, Eugene Levy and Jason Biggs as the much-humiliated protagonist. Surprisingly enough, many of the pop-culture references about the film actually concern bits that took bigger importance in the sequels: I’m particularly thinking about Stifler’s character and his mom, not to mention Alyson Hannigan’s quasi-cameo considering her role in latter movies. (The MILF thing is the MILF thing, though, even though I was surprised to be reminded that John Cho is the one who made it mainstream.) Still, even more than fifteen years later, American Pie holds up relatively well … as long as you can stand the sex = humiliation comedy equation.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) If you ask written Science Fiction fans why they’re so frequently annoyed by media SF, you’re likely to get variations on a common theme: Media SF doesn’t do much with the ideas it plays with. It’s rare to see a SF movie that plays with ideas longer than the duration of a trailer: More often, the SF premise leads to an intensely familiar plot transplanted from other genres almost as-is. A representative example of this problem can be found in Self/Less, which barely has time to explain its premise (Rich old dying man transplanted in younger body, discovers that the body belonged to someone else and vows to fight those who lied to him before then exterminate him) before settling into a very familiar chase thriller. It’s not exactly a new premise (although viewers should be forgiven if they don’t remember 1966’s Seconds), but the execution’s lack of wit instantly relegates Self/Less to undistinguished bargain bin status. Too bad for Ryan Reynolds, who once again doesn’t have much of a role to play. Too bad for Ben Kingsley, who deserves better. Too bad, too for director Tarsem Singh, who delivers perhaps the blandest film of an otherwise colourful career: Aside from some memory flashes, there’s little in Self/Less to justify using a strongly visual director like Singh. The result, sadly, is almost instantly forgettable: The plot is bland, the action sequences are dull and the emotional beats are intensely predictable. For a film based on class exploitation (as in “being rich enough to buy a new body”), Self/Less doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring them, nor anything else moderately interesting. While Self/Less is competently made, it’s also safe to the point of being featureless. No wonder SF fans often prefer turning to a good book.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) From the first moments, it’s obvious that The Revenant is going to be a beautiful film, a long film and a film with a lot more on its mind than a survival/revenge story. It could have been a cheap and efficient 90-minute exploitation film, considering the nature of the story: As far as incredible stories of survival are concerned, it’s hard to beat a gravely wounded man in 1790s American wilderness travelling 300 kilometres to seek the man who left him for dead and killed his son. Extreme survival, justified revenge, beautiful nature backdrops… No-one would have faulted The Revenant for focusing on the primal survival/revenge story. But in the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the result is a few steps above the strictly necessary. A savvy blend of nature shooting and cutting-edge special effects allows for lengthy, almost unbearable sequences of violence set against spectacular natural landscapes. In-between harsh weather, aggressive bears, warring white groups and wronged natives, there are many moving parts in The Revenant, and the script effortlessly plumbs at the complexities to be found in even such a so-called wilderness. Leonardo Di Caprio is remarkable as the hero of the story, even though Tom Hardy also does a lot as the antagonist. Still, the stars here are cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Iñárritu, transforming an exploitation premise into A-grade filmmaking. It’s true that the result could have been a bit shorter and less repetitive, but it feels a bit ungrateful to ask for less of an excellent film.