(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every so often, a movie manages to make me happy by sheer force of execution. Given that Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s return to dark fantasy in the vein of El Espinazo del Diablo and Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s not a surprise if the film is a sumptuous success in terms of atmosphere and visual design. Never mind the simple but satisfying story, the movie’s main set-piece is a decaying British manor in which snow falls through a hole in the roof, red clay oozes from the floor and vicious winds make the house creak and breathe. Crimson Peak is Gothic goodness pushed to a delirious limit, and the film is an eye-popping visual feast from beginning to end. The story may be predictable, but it acts as a decent framework for the atmosphere and the images, with capable supporting roles by Jessica Chastain (playing against type), Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. Still, the real star here is del Toro, orchestrating lavish production values, fine-tuning his script until even the one-liners click and infusing a mature approach to genre elements in a unique mixture. Much like his previous dark fantasy films, Crimson Peak isn’t quite a horror movie, isn’t quite a ghost story and isn’t quite a Gothic romance: it’s a blend of elements that somehow fit together in a way that pays homage to a tradition without being slaved to it. It plays with tropes, gets much better in time (the first half-hour is hit-and-miss, but once the film makes it to the manor, it kicks in a different gear) and doesn’t let plot simplicity in the way of packing a lot of layers, call-backs, foreshadowing and allusions. If this review feels slightly giddy, it’s because I’m writing it still under the influence of the film—it’s a terrific piece of work, the kind of which gets essential at a time when all blockbusters are made for mass consumption. Crimson Peak may not be for everyone, and that makes it even better.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) There’s something unintentionally amusing in seeing Ryan Reynolds in Criminal as a man whose personality gets transferred into a new body … given that’s pretty much what happened to his characters in Self/Less, RIPD and The Change-Up as well. There are a few crucial differences, though, and the first being that actor Reynolds is sent home early in Criminal after a short thrilling sequence that concludes with his death. The film’s real lead is Kevin Costner, as an unredeemable psychopath who ends up being an ideal memory transfer subject. Much of the movie is a standard terrorist chase through London, but there are enough wrinkles here to keep anyone interested: In particular, the dramatic tension between Reynolds’s do-good protagonist and Costner’s morally empty anti-hero is surprisingly compelling. There’s an impressive roster of known actors in small roles, from Tommy Lee Jones as a reluctant scientist to Gary Oldman as a CIA manager intent on cracking the case, with Gal Gadot as a non-super-heroic turn as the wife of Reynold’s character. As a blend of thrills and SF ideas, Criminal is competent. Less fortunately, director Ariel Vromen seem content in doing things conventionally, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine the film playing out more grandiosely, taking fuller advantage of its set-pieces. The action scenes are fine, but they could have been done better. Still, wasted potential is more interesting than no potential, and if Criminal didn’t do blockbuster business during its brief theatrical run, it’s got enough of a budget, stars and ideas to make it a more than decent cable-TV choice.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) It’s not that much of a surprise nor a contradiction if Barbershop: The Next Cut, fourth movie in the Barbershop universe, ends up tackling issues of community and gang violence. While the series’ best moments have almost always been the comic banter between the characters, its most satisfying entries (I’m not looking at you, Beauty Shop) have also highlighted the central place of the barber shop as a community hub, a forum to air out and resolve differences peacefully and a voluntary haven distinct from the outside world. To see this fourth film tackle gang violence in South Chicago and the choice between taking a stand or walking away feels appropriate. More entertainingly, the integrated barbershop is a step forward for the series, showing and profiting from the male and female perspective. Even the belated nature of this instalment, coming ten years after its predecessor, works to its advantage as things have or have not changed in the interim for both the characters and their world. Writer/star Ice Cube knows how to blend the inconsequential with the meaningful, and Barbershop: The Next Cut is as good as any pop-culture indicator of the state of the black community at the end of the Obama administration. (Guess who shows up after the credits roll?) As far as acting is concerned, there is a lot to like here: Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer and Regina Hall are up to their usual standards, while Eve, Common and Nicki Minaj both impress with natural performances. The result is an enjoyable blend of comedy, drama and social criticism, carefully calculated to balance each other. Sometimes, the most interesting commentary doesn’t come from loudspeakers, and Barbershop: The Next Cut is able to deliver some good material while looking as if it’s talking about nothing particularly important.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every year brings its new low-key Woody Allen film, this one back to the meditative thriller à la Matchpoint. Here, a university professor bored by life find renewed purpose when he decides to kill a deserving stranger, and tries to get away with it despite growing suspicion by a student with whom he’s having a relationship. Directed without fuss and written to include copious amount of philosophical references (with a plot more or less adapted from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), Irrational Man is the kind of adequate film that Allen has perfected over the years, amusing to watch and generous in allowing actors to inhabit their characters but oddly inconsequential once the credits roll and the story is neatly wrapped. The most noteworthy elements of the movie are the performances: Joaquin Phoenix is good as the anti-hero, while Emma Stone (in her second consecutive Allen film) is serviceable as a curious student. Irrational Man is fine without being exceptional, better than most direct-to-video thrillers while lacking the oomph of more successful criminal dramas.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a fan of the under-appreciated Good Kill, I feared that the similarly themed Eye in the Sky would feel stale and dull. How many movies about military drones and their ethical consequences do we need? But, as it turns out, Eye in the Sky runs almost entirely parallel to Good Kill (to the point where the two operators in the first film could become the protagonists of the other with very few modifications) and feels more successful at putting together a suspense thriller rather than a character drama. Helen Mirren stars as a British general at the centre of an operation that ends up reaching more and more people around the world. As western agents get closer to wanted terrorists in Kenya, efforts to confirm the target’s identity and minimize collateral damage become thornier and thornier, spanning the simultaneous actions of specialists scattered all over the planet. (At the film’s widest moment, I counted seven different groups of characters from Kenya to London—twice—to Hawaii to Las Vegas to China to Singapore) As a portrait of modern warfare, Eye in the Sky can become dizzying, and its suspense is real—especially when Barkhad Abdi’s on-the-ground agent tries to influence events near to proposed strike site. Meanwhile, Alan Rickman turns in a dignified last performance as a general who leaves humanity at the door of his briefing room. As suggested by the emphasis on drone warfare and global decision-making, Eye in the Sky is an unusual thriller, and director Gavin Hood manages to strike a good balance between drama, suspense, ethics and straight-up entertainment. Some of the technology is a few years away, but much of the film’s cerebral considerations are real and the result is a modern war movie that feels quite unlike any other—including Good Kill. Both are worth seeing, perhaps even in a single evening.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) This is not a conventional movie, being composed of several black-and-white vignettes in which two (occasionally three) characters argue over caffeine and smokes. The first two segments were shot as short films years before the others, and it shows as latter instalments become more textured and creative. Director Jim Jarmusch is obviously going for something experimental here, and the result will be far more interesting to those with a fondness for art-house cinema. Coffee and Cigarettes features an impressive group of thespians, with particular acknowledgements for Cate Blanchett’s double performance, Alfred Molina trying to get through to Steve Cooghan and Bill Murray for his innate Bill Murrayness. (Strangely enough, two of the film’s most striking actresses, Joie Lee and Renée French, haven’t done many other roles.) As intriguing as the central concept may sound, Coffee and Cigarettes doesn’t quite achieve its potential. The low-grade hostility between its characters is wearying, everything stays too mild-mannered and the philosophical tangents are profoundly uninteresting. (Although I’ll make an exception for “I know how a Tesla coil works!”) Fortunately, the film doesn’t have to be watched straight through: it’s easy (and even fun) to take it in a piece per day every day for a bit more than a week. There isn’t much to link the segments together, and this way you avoid the “that again!” feeling from watching too many similar short films.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) Five years after her breakout role in Bridesmaid, Melissa McCarthy has become an authentic movie star, to the level where she’s able to put together her own vanity projects. The Boss couldn’t be any more purely McCarthy, revolving around a character she created, co-written by her husband Ben Falcone (who also directs), and featuring her in a role that takes up most of the film. The result, on the other hand, may be too much McCarthy. While not a disaster, The Boss does feel meandering, overlong and curiously unfunny. While the structure of the script is conventional enough in a comic-underdog way, the rest of the film doesn’t come together. McCarthy’s character is unpleasant (although not as actively irritating as some of her previous roles), the jokes don’t reach for much and the surprises are few. Other players such as Kristen Bell and Peter Dinklage do their best to keep up, but this is the McCarthy show and while she’s OK as an actress, she gives herself no favours as a writer. Some bits work even then they feel familiar (such as the slow-motion girl scout fight sequence) while others just flop aimlessly. What’s unfortunate is that the McCarthy persona is fundamentally irritating, and pushing it too far ends up alienating viewers (See Identity Theft), while not taking advantage of it leads to boredom and restlessness. There’s an ideal balance to strike, but it’s not to be found in The Boss, which—at best—merely works as a run-of-the-mill comedy.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2016) Watching this movie without much knowledge or affection for either the Friday the 13th or the Nightmare on Elm Street series had me feeling as if I was attending a very strange party to which I hadn’t been invited. The concept of horror villain fandom baffles me—I had the impression that Freddy vs Jason was trying to get me to cheer for one mass murderers of children or another, which just seems wrong. It doesn’t help that Freddy vs Jason is, in most aspects, a thoroughly forgettable slasher: Here are a bunch of teenagers, there are the monsters, watch as they get picked off one by one until the final girl. Yawn. The film’s sole distinction is the amount of worship that Freddy vs Jason has for either Freddy Krueger (cackling one-liners) or Jason Voorhees (silent brute), which doesn’t translate into anything meaningful. Again: I’d like a horror movie that doesn’t make me feel like a psychopath, please. Some aspects of the film warrant mention due to imperfection: the CGI effects, in particular, look fake and dated. Some of Ronny Yu’s direction has some high-energy moments (with Robert Englund clearly having fun in a familiar role), even though the Crystal Lake third act feels far too long for its own good. I almost certainly could have gotten more out of Freddy vs Jason had I watched the interminable series that inspired it. But frankly, I have better things to do.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Let me tell you how little I cared about Carol: After renting it via video on-demand, I fell asleep midway through and didn’t come back to it before its 48-hour availability period expired. Six months later, I happened to catch its second half on Cable TV just to say I’d seen it to the end. To be fair, it’s a good film. Competently directed by Todd Haynes, it convincingly re-creates wintry 1950s New York in presenting the then-scandalous love affair between a high-class wife and a humble shopgirl/photographer. Strikingly enough, Carol manages to avoid the aren’t-we-better-now back-patting, or the tragic-forbidden-romance angle in which so many historical same-sex romances run aground. Even though it features stars such as the always-exceptional Cate Blanchett and It Girl Rooney Mara, it doesn’t shy away from explicit love scenes. As such, it’s a quiet triumph. Still, movie viewers with shorter attention spans will fiddle a long time while the film glacially moves through its story, rarely surprising or exciting. While there’s a bit of a thriller-ish subplot later on, Carol otherwise behaves almost exactly as it would have had it been put together in the 1950s. It would, of course, have been far more scandalous then, but that’s sort of the point of the film. I don’t think Carol will mind all that much if it leaves me cold: other reviewers have liked it a lot more than I did, and that’s good enough—it’s a big movie universe, and there’s a place for everything.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) It doesn’t reflect well on me, but I’ve long believed that Carey Mulligan is one of the most profoundly uninteresting thespian working at the moment. I don’t find her likable, attractive or impressive—most of her roles could have been played just as well by other actresses, and she doesn’t seem to have any innate distinction to her on-screen persona. But here comes An Education to make me question that long-held loathing: Mulligan is the clear protagonist of the movie, and she more than manages to be interesting, likable, attractive (a flattering haircut helps) and impressive as a young woman undergoing real-life schooling in 1960s England. Going from grade-A student to dropout under the influence of a conman, Mulligan portrays the withering innocence and mounting maturity of her character, and hold her own against capable actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (as the charming antagonist) and Alfred Molina (as a father who cares a lot). It’s not a complicated story, nor much of an original one, but it works well at what it tries to do, and ends up considerably more captivating than it looks on paper. An Education is a small surprise, not the least of them being Mulligan’s unexpectedly compelling performance.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Absence does make the heart grow fonder. After spending much of the early 2010s getting gradually fed up with Michael Cera’s persona, I forgot about him for a while. Watching him being quite likable as his usual screen-self in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist reminded me that, overexposure aside, there is a reason why he was pigeonholed in that kind of role: it works well at what it’s meant to be, especially if you’re going to make an underdog romantic comedy. More or less tightly structured around a wild night in New York City’s streets chasing an indie band’s pop-up concert, this hipster teenage rom-com works largely due to the freshness of its script and the likability of its stars. While the story isn’t particularly innovative, there’s some wit in the dialogue and the small-scale moments of the film. Meanwhile, Kat Denning s earns good notices for her performance in the female lead role, with a decent supporting turn by Ari Graynor and Jay Baruchel popping up in an extended cameo. I’m not a fan of the specific kind of mewling indie “rock” favoured by the film and its character, but their love of music itself is infectiously charming. The NYC location shooting is a highlight at a time where most movies will have other cities play New York—this is the real deal, painstakingly captured night after night. Director Peter Sollett, adapting a young-adult novel, is warm and sympathetic toward its sometimes-misguided characters. Containing the entire story overnight works in the film’s distinctiveness, much like its positive outlook and sweet disposition. Worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a likable teen romantic comedy … even if you think you’ve grown used to Cera’s persona.
(Second viewing, on TV, July 2016) I remember seeing this in theatres (opening week!) and feeling let-down by the way a first act promising the mysteries of the universe led to an underwhelming film about primitive tribes rushing into revolution with our band of heroes. Watching it again twenty years later, with adjusted expectations, I’m still disappointed. I suppose that if it’s space opera that I want, the subsequent TV series and novelizations will suffice, but it doesn’t make the original film much better. And yet, there are a few things to note here: James Spader as a likable nerd, a prime-era Kurt Russell acting tough as a military operative, an early eye-catching role for Mili Avital, and primitive CGI being used in obvious ways. The familiar triumphant-rebellion angle is guaranteed to be rousing, and director Dean Emmerich does manage one or two interesting visuals. Historically, this Emmerich/Devlin production works best as a bit of a bigger-budget rehearsal for the more accomplished madness that was Independence Day. Even with good intentions, I still feel underwhelmed by Stargate.
(On DVD, July 2016) Slick, loud and utterly forgettable, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot exemplified early on the defining characteristics of the recent (and hopefully disappearing) craze for remaking classic horror movies. The technical values are quite a bit better than the originals, but while the story structure remains the same, it’s filtered through a homogenizing process that removes nearly all the rough edges and quirks of the inspiration. The result usually feels lifeless, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake couldn’t be more representative of the trend. Featuring young protagonists facing down hillbillies, it’s a predictable by-the-number exercise in genre horror, with largely forgettable set pieces that are executed well enough to measure up to current production standards, but not so memorably as to warrant any sustained attention. It’s purely a teen slasher in backwater country, and there’s nothing worth pondering in terms of themes or style. Nobody will care about the limp attempt at framing the movie as a true-crime story. Jessica Biel is the notional protagonist here, but this won’t figure on her filmography as anything more than a stepping stone to more visible roles. Gorier yet less disturbing than the original, this Texas Chainsaw Massacre also shares another crucial characteristic of remakes: It’s unnecessary, and will quickly be forgotten in favour of its predecessor.
(On DVD, July 2016) It’s amazing how I get more mini-epiphanies during mediocre films than from great ones. The takeaway lesson from The Hills Have Eyes, as far as criticism theory is concerned, is this: I like horror movies that don’t make me feel like a sociopath. To unpack this a bit: When I’m watching a horror film, do I get the impression that it’s telling me to cheer for the villain? Have more time, attention and money been spent on the antagonist(s) rather than the heroes? If I shuffle through my favourite horror films of the past few years (It Follows, The Babadook, The Conjuring, etc.), it’s clear that they care for their protagonists and that they mean something beyond throwing gory violence on-screen. “Bad stuff happens to young people” isn’t a plot fit to make me like the result. Where this remake of The Hills Have Eyes comes in is that despite considerable effort designing and showcasing its mutated villains, it does have the decency to step back from the abyss just early enough to avoid complete nihilism. It is rather well executed for a schlocky creature feature: There’s a particularly unbearable sequence midway through in which three or four horrible things happen at once, and the movie becomes a full-on horror show of atrocities. I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s well done to a disturbing extent thanks to director Alexandre Aja’s savviness. The rest of the film isn’t so remarkable: As an example of the “crazed hillbillies want to kill our heroes” sub-genre, it has the appeal of taking place in a foreboding location and of sparing a larger number of its protagonists than you’d expect. Otherwise, it gets a bit off-putting in how it tries to give more personality to its monsters than its heroes, even painstakingly explaining the whys and hows of their origins when a simple mushroom cloud would have been more than sufficient. Save for the awful middle sequence, there isn’t much more to The Hills Have Eyes than your middling horror film, mass-produced for mindless gore-hound consumption. There’s a public for that … but I’m not included.
(On DVD, July 2016) I wasn’t expecting much from the low-budget Jeepers Creepers, which is probably why I ended up pleasantly satisfied. This is not, to be clear, a particularly good or respectable horror movie. Don’t go looking for deeper themes or allegories in the result, which is as straightforward a creature feature as can be. This is nothing more than the story of two teenagers encountering a monster in the backwoods and dealing with the ensuing mayhem. Still, Jeepers Creepers does have a bit of self-awareness and some of the suspenseful sequences are handled well. The terror move deliberately from the rural to the supernatural, and the atmosphere of the result is interesting enough, especially when the protagonists reach “civilization” and find out that it’s not much comfort. The “Jeepers Creepers” song is catchy, and the monster does have some originality to it. The dialogue has its moments, and Justin Long has an early memorable role as one of the teenage protagonists. It does get more and more conventional as it goes on, unfortunately, and the grim ending doesn’t do much to make it any better. Still, Jeepers Creepers knows what it tries to do, and isn’t too bad at it.