(On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t seen a screwball comedy in a long while, and veteran writer/director Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way is unapologetic about how it tries to re-create the confused romantic farces of earlier film eras. Here we have an adulterous theatre director, his wife (an actress), their friend (an actor), an escort changed by their meeting, the worst psychiatrist even, a private detective, a lonely judge … clashing together in weird and ridiculous ways. The film gradually builds it set pieces, goofs along its equally goofy characters, leaves the actors to do their best and lets the chaos take over. What’s unfortunate is that the film keeps its best set pieces (the restaurant clash) for the middle, leading to a curiously lacklustre ending. Still, the film is fun, and the surprising number of recognizable actors showing up in minor roles only adds to the film’s unpredictability. Owen Wilson is fine as the lead director, with Kathryn Hawn, Rhys Ifan and Imogen Poots holding up their end of the plot. Surprisingly enough, queen-of-blandness Jennifer Aniston also turns in a thoroughly despicable performance. She’s Funny That Way’s pacing is zippy, the misunderstandings are numerous, the dialogue relatively interesting and a stuffed squirrel even shows up as a plot point. I’m not sure I can ask for much more.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2016) I wasn’t expecting much from Australian thriller Son of a Gun, but it does get steadily better as it goes on. Featuring Ewan MacGregor and Alicia Viklander, this film starts as a prison thriller, but gradually becomes more interesting as the characters get out of prison, execute their Big Heist and then have to live with the aftermath. Brenton Thwaites has the central role as a young man who is transformed by prison, becomes the confidante of a veteran criminal and tries to forge his own happy conclusion from between far more powerful villains. While the limits of the film’s budget are obvious, the script gets more interesting as it goes along, and the film’s west-Australia setting makes for an interesting change of pace. There isn’t much more to say about Son of a Gun—at best, it’s a quiet surprise for those who aren’t expecting much more.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) I won’t actually claim to be a mature film critic, but there’s certainly been an evolution in my capacity to appreciate Coen Brothers movies even when they flat-out refuse any conventional appreciation. I didn’t set anything on fire at the end of A Serious Man, and while I think that No Country for Old Men is overrated (oops, there goes my credibility), I don’t deny that it has some fantastic moments. So it is with Hail Caesar!, which I expected to like a lot more based on its premise: After all, doesn’t the idea of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer running around solving problems sound fantastic? Especially if that gives us the opportunity to re-create the kinds of movies (biblical epics, overwrought dramas, western comedies, musicals of both the sing-and-dance and aquatic variety) of the time? Seems like a target-rich foundation for a comedy, and Hail Caesar! does manage to hit a few targets along the way: Taken in five-minute scenes, there’s more than a few good moments in the film. Channing Tatum has a great dance number, George Clooney effortlessly plays a dim megastar, newcomer Alden Ehrenreich makes a great first impression (especially in doing lasso tricks). Unfortunately, those bits and pieces aren’t necessarily part of something bigger: The plot is haphazardly assembled, listlessly developed and more or less cast aside toward the end. Character moments don’t add up to dramatic arcs, and in-between too-short cameos and sudden/meaningless plot revelations, there’s a feeling that a lot of connective material has been left aside: This may have worked better as a miniseries than a film. In the meantime, we’re left with a few set pieces and a lot of wasted potential. As with most Coen movies, it’s worth looking at critical commentary piecing together the symbolic meaning of the film—there’s certainly a lot of material here revolving around systems of faith, including economic and spiritual ones. But at the most basic level, Hail Caesar! isn’t much of a success as a plot-driven film, and considering the amount of talent assembled for the occasion, we’re not wrong in expecting more.
(In French, Video on Demand, June 2016) Disney’s Animated Studios post-Bolt renaissance is further strengthened with this latest entry in their filmography. Zootopia fully takes advantage of the possibilities of today’s cutting-edge computer animation to revel in its anthropomorphic vision. The prospect of a mystery set in a city filled with talking mammals is so obvious that it’s a bit of a wonder why it hadn’t been attempted so far, but Zootopia goes beyond the obvious cute-animal gags to deliver a surprisingly relevant story revolving around prejudice and self-fulfillment. A few comic set-pieces work well, but Zootopia does have enough substance to please the parents while the kids have fun with the cartoons. (Beware, though, that some of the darkest sequences may be a bit too intense for younger audiences.) The world sketched here is expansive and compelling—there seems to be a lot of potential for sequels and spin-offs. Still, what we see here though the likable Judy Hopps is bursting with energy and invention, with surprisingly sophisticated moral commentary on the corrosive nature of populism and prejudice. I wasn’t expecting emerging-Nazism metaphors to creep into my Disney cartoons, but there we are and the result is fit to make adults just as enthusiastic about Zootopia as the little kids loving the cute animals. While I could have shortened some of the more obvious moments (Hopps’ impromptu media briefing seems like a notable misfire in an otherwise deftly handled film, although I’m not too crazy about the excruciating sloth sequence), Zootopia is a big hit with broad cross-appeal and it deserves all the good press it got.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I recall seeing Jumanji on TV in the mid-nineties, but another visit twenty years later only highlights the film’s issues. It’s not simply that the film’s special effects haven’t aged well (and they haven’t—the CGI material looks noticeably disconnected from the live action), it’s the film’s structure, its casual disregard for causality, its refusal to engage in the consequences of its more audacious ideas. Robin Williams is fine in the lead role (although one sense that he’s being restrained with the requirements of the special-effect production) and the script does show some intriguing ideas along the way, but they’re not explored in any details beyond the surface appeal of compelling visuals (monkeys jumping around the kitchen, wild beasts stampeding on the city square). Meanwhile, these are a few horrific ideas dealing with lengthy exiles, the game-as-monster and parallel timelines that are barely and lazily addressed. Of course, exploring those issues further would take Jumanji far away from the romp-for-children that it aims to be… Still, there are missed opportunities in making weighty themes stand too close to an adventure film for kids: I can imagine younger audiences cheering and clapping along while their parents stand there with a queasy grin informed by far too many reasonable fears. If you can let go of this weighty baggage of implications, the film itself works intermittently: Director Joe Johnston can certainly handle special effects set pieces (it’s not his fault if the technology wasn’t quite there yet at the time). For once, the announcement of an impending remake doesn’t bother me too much: Jumanji has a lot of potential, but a lot of it was mishandled by this version. Here’s hoping the 2017 remake does better.
(In French, Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) I know I’ve seen Léon at least once twenty-some years ago, but I didn’t remember much more than one or two images for it. Count that as a good thing, because it allowed me to rediscover Léon in most of its glory. It’s not a triumph of plotting, but of execution: writer/director Luc Besson’s a flawed filmmaker, but in Léon has managed to play to his strengths such as action, atmosphere and iconic characters, while minimizing most of his weaknesses like stupid dialogues and tiring anti-establishmentarianism. Well, most of his weaknesses, because if you go down the rabbit hole of the movie’s deleted scenes picturing a romantic relationship between the two lead characters and then match that to Besson’s own personal romantic history you will be screaming, “No, Luc Besson, no!” faster than you’d expect. But moving on: Léon distills a strong but uncomplicated story to a few action set pieces and clever character moments. It’s almost uncluttered (save from some oddities such as the shooting-the-president comic sequence), focuses on its better moments and showcases three great actors: Natalie Portman in her screen debut, Jean Reno in what’s perhaps still his best-known role (luckily, he dubs his own voice in the French version), and Gary Oldman in another great role in a long and varied filmography. The action beats are impeccable, and the atmosphere of a bustling but slightly rotten New York City is fantastic. Léon holds up all right, especially considering how often the teenage-assassin idea has been redone since then.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I’m sure that the filmmakers wanted me to like Mrs. Doubtfire more than I did. Featuring Robin Williams as an immature dad cross-dressing as a way to stay in touch with his kids following a messy separation, Mrs. Doubtfire navigates a tricky line between Williams’ high-intensity comedy and the somewhat more sobering implications of a disintegrating marriage. There’s a layer of duplicity and impossible logistics to the film that makes it harder to enjoy the moment you look closer at it. (Do you know how much close-up face prosthetics cost and how long they take to apply?) For a while, it doesn’t matter very much, especially when Williams is on-screen making funny voices and working without a leash. But anyone expecting a tidy conclusion will have to contend with a romantic rival who’s not despicable, a conclusion that doesn’t patch everything together and an ending where things go on uncomfortably. I’d normally appreciate such a nuanced conclusion, but it merely reinforces a feeling that for a comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire is a sad film, with good people driven to lies and unhealthy behaviour. Much of the same can be said of the film itself: sometimes, we’re torn between opposite impulses, and they end up making a mess of good intentions. Here, the drama undermines the comedy and the comedy undermines the drama, leaving no-one truly happy.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) My memory may be playing tricks on me, because I remembered Backdraft as a more iconic film than this second viewing suggests. Despite the far better picture quality of watching this in HD as compared to standard television (maybe VHS) resolution, the film feels a bit smaller this time around. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I still think Backdraft is the iconic firefighting movie. Fire plays a lead character in the film, the script manages to play with enough suspense elements to keep things interesting. Ron Howard’s direction is the apogee of early-nineties slickness, while a group of great actors do interesting things together, from a dynamic Robert de Niro (back when he wasn’t playing a caricature of himself), to the incomparable Kurt Russell to an unusually strong turn by William Baldwin. Even Donald Sutherland (seemingly as old then as he is now) turns up in a pair of memorable scenes. The firefighting action sequences remain unparallelled, especially than last scenes with the exploding barrels. But in my mind, I had built up Backdraft as something a bit more grandiose than it is. I’m certainly not calling for a remake, but I’m welcoming this as a reminder not to set my expectations too high as I revisit blockbuster movies I haven’t seen in a long time.
(Second or third viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) Wayne’s World hit pop culture the summer before my senior high-school year. You can imagine the carnage, and my visible twitching at how “… NOT,” “Sha-wing!” “Baberham Lincoln” and other catchphrases are still embedded deeply in my brain. Not that it’s all bad: I credit Wayne’s World for making “Bohemian Rhapsody” one of my top-ten all-time favourite songs. Still, I hadn’t seen the film in over twenty years, and watching it was as pure a nostalgia experience as I can remember. Even today, I could quote verbatim from some moments, happily banged my head along at the appropriate time and was looking forward to the pronunciation of “mill-e-wah-que”. Still, I had forgotten enough of the film to make it interesting. I didn’t remember so much meta-humour commentary, and it still works most excellently. (Interestingly, though, I’ve been conflating two quotes as “I’m giving you a no-spew guarantee” for the past twenty-some years.) Mike Myers and Dana Carver are very good as the protagonists, while Tia Carrere looks spectacular in her debut role. The meta-humour is playful enough to stay enjoyable today, even despite a few rough edges. (My new nightmare is seeing Wayne’s World remade as a reality-TV mockumentary.) For a film that I may have been tempted to dismiss as a mere source of high-school silliness, Wayne’s World is still remarkably funny today.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I remember seeing bits and pieces of Death Becomes Her before (especially the special effects work) but not the entire thing and having watched it, I can only conclude that Hollywood’s become far more risk-averse in the past twenty-five years because … wow, this is a weird film. It blends comedy with a fair bit of understated horror, hops viewpoints between protagonists, plays with supernatural tropes and seems delighted in deglamorizing its stars. Seeing Bruce Willis play a downtrodden surgeon is remarkable not only because he’s relatively animated in the role, but because it’s the kind of self-deprecating role he’d never play any more. Goldie Hawn (occasionally in a fat suit) and Meryl Streep (gamely going to lowbrow physical comedy) also play against persona, carefully directed by Robert Zemeckis with the kind of silliness that seems absent from the last two decades of his work. What’s definitely within his filmography is the film’s use of special effects for storytelling purpose: While dated, the work still carries a certain charge even today, and it’s not a surprise to find out that it won the Special Effects Oscar back in 1993. Beyond effects, Death Becomes Her does have a bit of beauty/age thematic depth to it, although I probably would feel better about a clash between aging actresses had the script been better at portraying the female gaze: At times, the “ha-ha, they’re so vain!” gags can feel mean-spirited and missing the point of the theme. But it’s definitely a weird film, also so much so that it’s to be discovered and savoured. It takes chances, occasionally missteps and often dares to indulge in risk-taking humour. The result may not be entirely successful, but it’s gleefully audacious and remains its own creation, without giving the impression of being photocopied from the Hollywood mainstream. Worth a look, if only as a reminder of the kind of stuff that Hollywood won’t dare touch these days at it chases predictable results.
(Video on Demand, June 2016) Thrillers don’t need a lot to plot to work, but there’s an acceptable minimum of twists and turns that have to be met and Return to Sender never manages to have more than two plot beats in mind. Rosamund Pike stars as a likable nurse violently assaulted in her own home. As you may expect, the rest of the film is very much about vengeance, even though the film may try to hide that fact. Much of the last act of the film is obvious and linear, without the slightest twist to keep things interesting. It doesn’t help that the film moves at a languid pace, easily allowing viewers to piece together what’s going to happen before it actually happens. As a result, Return to Sender is a remarkably dull film even for a dark vengeance thriller. The film’s low budget and pedestrian directing doesn’t help. Despite those significant flaws, it’s easy to see why Pike took the role; the film is centred around her, and there are eerie parallels between her character here and in Gone Girl, bordering on typecasting. She easily remains the best thing about Return to Sender, running circles around the other actors (well, except Nick Nolte as her father) Pike completists (not something to be ashamed of) may want to take a look at the film, especially now that it’s on Netflix. Everyone else, though, may have better things to watch.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) It’s frustrating to see how Hollywood still hasn’t figured out movies based on videogames. Series with rich and fascinating lore end up steamrolled into generic action vehicles. So it is that the entire Hitman series gets a second kick at the can with reboot Hitman: Agent 47, coming less than seven years after the first attempt. The good news, I suppose, is that this second attempt is an average action film, certainly more interesting than the instantly forgettable first movie. Hitman: Agent 47 does keep things rolling with mysterious allegiances, acceptable action scenes, at least one good set-piece (“You’ve brought me my gun”) and a heroine that can hold her own. Rupert Friend is fine as the titular Agent 47, while it’s interesting to see Zachary Quinto play an action character. Still, Hitman: Agent 47 is hampered by meaningless subplots, inconsistent direction and a weak ending that too obviously leads to a sequel that will never exist. Very little of it reflects well on the videogame series. But, small joy, it’s actually better than the first movie, which suggests that at this pace, they may end up having a good Hitman movie by the 2030s.