(On Cable TV, August 2016) The National Football League has wrapped itself so tightly in the American flag and associated values that attacking it seems outright blasphemous if not vaguely treasonous. So you’ll excuse Concussion if it carefully walks a line between denouncing the league and yet not offending any sensibilities. Transforming true events in a conspiracy thriller in which a lone brave doctor discovers the link between football and premature brain damage, Concussion pumps far too much drama in its structure. It works, but only to a point: While the middle third of the story is reasonably gripping, the first act leisurely establishes the endearingly nerdish personality of its protagonist, and the conclusion peters out without a clear triumphant moment to ease the lead character’s trials. As the headliner, Will Smith is actually pretty good: he credibly takes on a Nigerian accent and minimizes his natural cockiness in a role that only needs a fraction of it. It’s a refreshingly adult performance for an actor who has had trouble evolving his screen persona. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does good work in what is slightly more than a generic character, while Alec Baldwin still makes the most of his propensity to play antagonists … even when he isn’t. Football is America’s secular religion, and Concussion occasionally seems preoccupied by the need to pull its punches. The made-up conspiracy angle (with FBI raids! And car pursuits! And a miscarriage!) whimpers out, leading to an underwhelming conclusion that relies a bit too much on title cards. Concussion is not a bad film, but it does feel unfinished at times.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) The reason to watch Scent of a Woman isn’t as much the well-worn mentor/prodigy plot (which is structurally similar to Finding Forrester, which I coincidentally saw just a week ago) than with its memorable lead character as portrayed by one of Al Pacino’s career-best performance. Colonel Frank Slade is a piece of work: old, blind but intensely charismatic despite his abrasive personality, he has a secret plan and drags a young man through a wild weekend in New York, at the end of which he intends to kill himself. Meanwhile, the student protagonist wrestles with matters of integrity and future prospects. Their interaction makes up most of Scent of a Woman, considerably enlivened by Pacino’s “Hoo-ah!” and his propensity for straight talk. (I suspect that most men who aspire to elderly crankiness can try to emulate his character, but don’t have what it takes to achieve it.) The movie is successful at what it wants to be, although (like many of director Martin Brest’s films) it’s far too long for its own good: At more than two hours and a quarter, Scent of a Woman doesn’t have the plot complexity required to sustain its duration. (Unfortunately, it’s tough to decide what should be cut, and if some of the film’s greatest character moments would be gone along the way.) Chris O’Donnell is OK as the young audience stand-in whose mission is to be amazed by Slade’s behaviour, while Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in his big-screen debut. The ending is a bit cheap and conventional, but it’s the journey alongside an impressive character that makes Scent of a Woman worth seeing.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Harsh but triumphant, In the Name of the Father tells the upsetting story of Gerry Conlon, a Belfast resident falsely accused of murder by the British Police and locked up for fifteen years before being set free, although not before seeing his father die in prison. Much of the movie is a showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Conlon expertly while the character changes from an easy-going twenty-year-old to an almost-forty-something ex-convict. Jim Sheridan’s direction can be aggressive at time, with strong music cues dominating the opening section of the film, then pivoting toward a justice-reclaimed narrative later during the movie. In the Name of the Father’s showcase sequence is almost certainly the interrogation that closes the first act, as brutal a display of dystopian police authority as can be imagined. While In the Name of the Father is not always easy to watch, it is compelling enough to elevate the oft-familiar subject. Saffron Burrows can be seen in a small (but tall) role early in the movie.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) I have almost no memory of the 1980s TV cartoon which Jem and the Holograms is based, so I approached the film wondering if it would take life on its own. Unfortunately, it doesn’t: a teen movie inspired by source material watched by their parents, it’s a bizarre mix of contemporary Internet buzzwords, robotic fantasy, treasure quest, wish fulfillment, limp musical numbers and dumb plotting. The tone is wistful on the verge of maudlin, completely missing out on the premise’s potential for fun and comedy. The result is simply not very good, and the nods toward the source material actually make the film worse. The (pre) teenage audience of the movie is likely to be disappointed by its dumb-even-for-kids plotting, with idiot decisions everywhere compounded with stupid assumptions. (The treasure hunt depends on hiding something in a major landmark for years, the protagonists coincidentally playing at a particular venue and them choosing to break into a place where they already have access. Most movies for kids have better plotting than this!) Jem and the Holograms has an irritating tendency to use the Internet as a magic trick (A million views on one video in a day or two! Massive success in weeks!!), approaching condescension along the way. Perhaps most damning, however, is the flat direction. Coming from director Jon M. Chu, who has a few energetic movies in his filmography (Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), this is a significant disappointment. Even blending mixed-media on-screen (via VHS tapes, Google Earth flybys, web browser windows, YouTube videos and the like) doesn’t work all that well. The musical number are dull and the rest of the film’s direction doesn’t impress either. The actors, fortunately, do better than their material. Aubrey Peeples does have a compelling charm to her as protagonist Jem, while Juliette Lewis looks more animated than she’s been in years as a scenery-chomping villain executive. Still, it doesn’t help much. Maybe it was a budget (the film was reportedly shot for a ridiculous-sounding $5M), or a lack of care and ambition. No matter: the result is unremarkable even with low expectations. Jem and the Holograms should have been much better, or at least far more enjoyable.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) I spent a fair chunk of my twenties watching Hong Kong action movies, so my expectations were pretty reasonable in approaching Revenge of the Green Dragons, a film that takes on Chinese immigrant criminal adventures in eighties New York City. Co-Director Andrew Lau, after all, is the director of the classic Infernal Affairs. Alas, the result is far more pedestrian than anyone could have predicted. The plot elements are stock, and their execution is perfunctory at best. Two brothers in a triad, a girl who disapproves of the thug life, drugs imported from China, gang wars … all familiar, and yet all mishandled. The fast-paced montages are more disorienting than energetic, the story either spends too much or too little time on its own plot points, and there’s not much here to distinguish Revenge of the Green Dragons from others of the same ilk. (The Chinese ethnicity of the characters would be noteworthy … if I hadn’t watched so many Chinese gangster movies a decade or two ago.) Seeing Martin Scorsese as executive producer generates even higher expectations that the result can’t match. While some of the direction has its moments, the rest of the film doesn’t distinguish itself. As far as the acting goes, Ray Liotta sleepwalks through a familiar supporting role, while Shuya Chang and Eugenia Yuan each provide some welcome counterpoint (in their own way) to the story’s male-centric muddle. Revenge of the Green Dragons, to put it bluntly, is a bore, and a substandard treatment of promising material. Maybe it’s shackled too tightly to its “inspired by true events” origins. Maybe it’s strapped for budget. Maybe it’s just a mediocre production, destined to be forgotten like so many other criminal dramas.
(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Sometimes, catchphrases stem from the unlikeliest places. So it is that Finding Forrester’s “You’re the man now, dog!” became an integral part of Internet meme history, which is really truly weird coming from such a staunchly classic inspirational film. Here, Sean Connery gets one of his last good roles as a reclusive author who discovers a brilliant but disadvantaged teen writer/athlete (Rob Brown’s debut performance). Much of the movie runs on autopilot, predictably portraying both men helping each other with their problems. There’s gratuitous antagonism provided by F. Murray Abraham, a cameo by Matt Damon, some basketball, romance with Anna Paquin and an attempt to make writing look really exciting. Finding Forrester blurs quickly with many other similarly themed films, although Connery’s presence is a bonus. The glimpse inside an elite high school can be interesting, the emphasis on literary matters will please a number of middlebrow viewers, and the movie does get points for not insisting too much on the protagonist’s racial struggles. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say: Finding Forrester is the kind of inspiring story that Hollywood churned out by the truckload for decades, and while director Gus van Sant’s work is not exactly dull, it’s not particularly memorable either. Well, aside from the sight of Connery barking out “You’re the man now, dog!” once his protégé figures out how to type correctly. That’s still weird sixteen years later.
(In French, In Theatres, August 2016) As the father of a preschooler, I’ve been watching a lot of kids’ movies lately, and this 2016 remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is notable for its refreshing sense of decency, restraint and timelessness. It’s not a particularly complicated story, and that helps set the tone for an unhurried film in which an orphaned boy, living in the forest under protection of a dragon, gradually reintegrates human society. A number of clever design decisions reinforce the film’s intent. Voluntarily set in small-town America, this is a film that avoids too-clear markers of time, and could have been set at nearly any time during the last forty years. The dragon is made fuzzy-green, intensely huggable like a big cat rather than scaly and frightening. The cinematography is all in soft tones, back-lit trees, hazy sunlight and desaturated colours. (Alas, those choices often clash with the film’s 3D projection and make it harder to watch than necessary—Pete’s Dragon may be best seen flat at home.) Robert Redford shows up as a likable old man with stories to tell, whereas Bryce Dallas Howard is just as sympathetic as the mother figure of the film and Oakes Fegley earns notice as the boy in the middle of the story. Director David Lowery’s deliberate pace makes it easier to underscore the film’s themes about family and growing up, as well as big emotional payoffs for most characters. (Even the dragon!) A family film in the classic, almost forgotten sense of the term, Pete’s Dragon is charming and well-made at once, ensuring that it will earn at least a modest success in years to come.
(In French, In Theatres, August 2016) By the time they’ve hit their fifth instalment, ongoing series usually have both figured out their formula and downgraded their ambitions to focus almost solely on that formula. So it is that Ice Age: Collision Course once again focuses on the adventure of woolly mammoth Manny and his growing family (this time around, daughter Peaches is about to wed) while some world-altering events takes place. Meanwhile, and perhaps more interestingly, the film’s subplot goes for gonzo Science Fiction as squirrel Scrat’s fondness for acorns leads to a reshaping of the solar system via alien technology and the usual slapstick. Earthbound, we have more of the usual banter (any hope of seeing the idiot sloth being sidelined is once again extinguished), along with more implausible sci-fi shenanigans involving a volcano, alien crystal and an incoming meteor strike, implausibly prophesied by … whom? Anyway; it’s not as if this is a series built on realism, and by the time the film brings back (through a rather good long shot set to “Figaro”) the striking grander-than-life Buck from the third instalment, it’s easier to be swept up by the energy of the film. I mean: There’s a Neil deGrasse Tyson parody and an extended subplot about rejuvenating crystals. As for the rest, Ice Age: Collision Course is perhaps a bit too familiar at this point, and rote in its execution … but still more or less an extension to the series as it exists.
(On TV, August 2016) In an age of CGI-fuelled extravagant spectacles, you’d think that a special-effect-free western Dances with Wolves would be underwhelming … but it’s not. A sweeping western epic, this is a movie that still feels great today largely because it so grounded. You can compare the film’s standout buffalo hunting sequence to the SFX-heavy stampede in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (as sacrilegious it may be to even mention both movies in the same paragraph) and there’s no comparison: the best special effect remains reality. It helps that the film itself is solidly put together: Dances with Wolves remains director/star Kevin Costner’s most notable achievement, and still one of his best roles to date. (Contrarily to his other career-best The Bodyguard, his stoic persona hadn’t fully solidified by then, and he seems more adept in the various facets of his role.) There are also notable roles for Graham Greene, and the lovely Mary McConnell. While Dances with Wolves’ pacing can be maddening throughout its three hours, it does help create the sense of scale that the story requires: As shown by the film’s title, it’s very much a character-driven piece set against the immensity of the frontier, as a white man comes to adopt the native way of life. As such, I think that it has weathered the past quarter-century better than other similar pieces. From my limited white-guy privilege, interrogating the story through a white-saviour perspective doesn’t lead to a full-blown condemnation, since the protagonist doesn’t do all that much to save “the others” (arguably, he only creates trouble for them along the way), and “the others” are portrayed with some nuance. While I’m not a natural audience for westerns (nor assimilation narratives, and especially not three-hour films), Dances With Wolves flows better than I expected, and remains just as respectable today as it was back in 1990. It’s still an impressive achievement, even without computer-generated hordes of buffalos.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) I’m reasonably sure I disliked Dancer in the Dark, but it does have a few interesting things going for it. I’m not normally a fan of writer/director Lars von Trier, and the first thirty-some minutes of this film feature his worst tendencies: Muddy naturalistic cinematography (filmed on early-generation digital cameras), tepid pacing, depressing characters in even more depressing situations… This example being set, it would be easy to figure that the rest of the film would just as unbearable. But then, a full musical number happens! That’s when Dancer in the Dark becomes interesting, clashing between the slick expectations of a musical number with the naturalistic low-fi style of an independent drama. It’s a remarkable effect, and it does much to make the film interesting despite its worst characteristics. The rest of the film arguably gets better and worse: On the plus side, there’s a murder, more musical numbers and an exceptionally unusual conclusion. On the minus side, everything drags on much longer than it should and the melodrama gets ridiculous to the point where even the depressing conclusion feels like unintentional comedy. (Thematic critique of the United States? Oh boy.) I’d shorten the last hour considerably, but unfortunately that may mean losing the pretty good courtroom dance number. Bjork feels like a special effect of her own, singing her numbers, holding her own in acting scenes and, of course, looking innocently cute throughout. So, what to make of Dancer in the Dark? I’m favouring mild dislike, even despite a fondness for conceptual daring. But I don’t know, really.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Whew. I’m not going to try to give a coherent review of Schindler’s List, but it has certainly earned its notoriety, awards and enduring reputation. More than twenty years later, it hasn’t aged, and in fact may have appreciated in some respects—the last sequence, presenting Holocaust survivors who have largely died since 1993, will only grow more impressive as a time capsule. Both Liam Neeson and Joseph Fiennes are terrific in their roles—there’s even a bit of canny physical casting going on with Neeson, given how his height often allows him to effortlessly become the focus of group scenes. But what’s perhaps most astonishing about Schindler’s List is how it works despite ignoring conventional wisdom. Its most transcending moments are found in digressions from the story it could have told more economically, whether it’s showing what happens to the luggage of people being hauled away to concentration camps, or a lengthy sequence detailing the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto, or another scene in which terrified women are forced into a group shower where they fear the worst. Those highlights are, at best, tangential to the film’s story about a businessman who saved more than a thousand people from being killed in concentration camps. But they pack an emotional punch that raise Schindler’s List far above countless more mechanical attempts at portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. If it means that the film is a massive 197 minutes long, then so be it: it’s so good that it passes by quickly. The essentially black-and-white cinematography is terrific, and hasn’t perceptively aged today. Director Steven Spielberg has achieved an artistic and humanitarian masterpiece here, and has done so in the same year he delivered his blockbuster Jurassic Park. Neither of these films are going away, but Schindler’s List has the added appeal that it will never be remade. Who can even pretend to retouch quasi-perfection?
(Netflix streaming, August 2016) It would be tempting but unfair to start holding Mockingjay Part 2 accountable for the faults of the entire young-adult dystopian subgenre. Even though The Hunger Game launched the category in 2012, it can’t be entirely held responsible for the flood of imitations, including those executed as trilogies with split last chapters. Especially not given how many flaws it has on its own. Surprisingly enough, this last chapter in the Hunger Games series holds true to the third book’s second half, even despite the bad reviews and disappointed fans’ reaction to the end of the series. Here, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, once again holding the series on her shoulders) heads to the Capitol for a final confrontation with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, just as good in his slimy-cold mode) as the rebels are nearly done overthrowing the established tyranny. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up one last time in a small role that he manages to make much better. Of course, things aren’t so black-and-white: the rebels once again prove to be just as bad as their oppressors, Katniss is suffering from some significant psychological issues, she’s surrounded by a people she can’t trust and the Empire is ready to throw some tough obstacles in her way. The rest is an urban war movie with enough teenage melodrama (helped along by some brainwashing and questionable character choices) to reach most of the four quadrants. Some bits drag on and on, such as an almost entirely superfluous zombie battle in the sewers. There are a lot of special effects, last-minute betrayals, musings on propaganda and a downbeat ending that (as in the novels) makes a mockery of the first book’s initial triumph. On the one hand: how sad and depressing—are we sure this is what we should be teaching today’s already-depressed young adults? On the other: how daring and unconventional—isn’t such nuance what we’re always saying we want from fiction aimed at younger people? I still haven’t figured out, and so my rating for Hunger Games 3b remains in the middle range. But if there’s anything to push me over to a side in particular, it’s that I’m glad it’s over, because it means another dystopian series I won’t have to keep remembering plot details in anticipation of the next instalment. That may not be entirely fair to the film, but when you can mix-and-match elements from three different series in one common structure, it’s hard to avoid a bit of burnout.
(Video on Demand, August 2016) Noted comedy duo Key & Peele (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) make their big-screen debut in Keanu, an action comedy revolving around a cute kitten sought by two criminal groups and our pair of nebbish protagonists. Defying stereotypes, Key & Peele take on personas closely associated with white actors (a stoner, a square family man) and sends them in the middle of a gang war. Blending comedy with suspense requires a deft touch, and one of Keanu’s most distinctive traits is that it’s shot like a thriller (with shadows, depth-of-field, slow-motion action sequences) by director Peter Atencio despite a succession of visual gags and rapid-fire dialogue. The mix is not perfect: There are times, such as the end of the Anna Faris scene, where the film errs too much in one direction. But while the joke density is on the low side, Keanu delivers what it intended, and the result is a fair bit of entertainment. The cute kitten, obviously helps make everything better and funnier.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) Watching this A Nightmare on Elm Street remake so close to seeing the original is an exercise in comparing different film eras. The eighties were marked by rapid experimentation, at the frequent expense of polish or logic. The Teens, especially at the Hollywood studio level, are about crass commercialism, storytelling templates and visual slickness, even if the result often feels as if it comes off an assembly chain. In A Nightmare on Elm Street’s case, there’s also twenty-five years of accumulated fannish expectations regarding Freddy Krueger, who’s been featured in five sequels, one crossover, videogames, comics, Halloween costumes and enough merchandizing to make anyone wonder why we’re cheering for a serial child killer. Thankfully, the remake goes easy on the homages: While this new version of A Nightmare on Elm Street keeps more or less the same structure as the original and doesn’t dare deviate from its iconography, it’s also relaxed about doing its own thing. The acting is much better (Jackie Earle Haley is fine as Krueger, while it’s a surprise to find Rooney Mara in a pre-stardom role here), and so is the cinematography. The progress in special effects technology means that the remake is far more visually cohesive than the original. There is a pretty good sequence, for instance, in which action in a small supermarket seamlessly shift into a boiler-room nightmare and that’s the kind of intricately controlled special effect set-piece that the 1984 low-budget film couldn’t even aspire to execute. On the other hand, this reliance on digital wizardry means that this remake looks far more deliberate and restrained than the original. Everything from director Samuel Bayer seems planned, with few surprises or genuinely upsetting visions along the way. (This being said, I’m more annoyed than I expected at the last gory death of the film.) While this A Nightmare on Elm Street does stand on its own as an average horror movie, it does pale in comparison to the loopy terrors of its inspiration. Even five years after the remake, it seems clear that the 1984 original will be remembered for far longer.