(On Blu-ray, September 2016) The recent proliferation of teenage dystopias has been made worse by the sameness of their premise and the shameless way they all adopted the same ways to talk to teenagers. As a latecomer to the party, the Divergent series has to contend with a stronger sense of déjà vu, and as a middle volume in a series, Insurgent has a harder time distinguishing itself from other, often better competitors. Here, the nonsensical adventures of our heroine continue without too many revelations: There is now an open rebellion against the established order, and the order doesn’t like that at all. Shailene Woodley does fine as the super-special protagonist, but there isn’t much in this instalment to keep viewers interested. The sole exception worth mentioning are the oneiric segments in which our lead character deals with surreal fantasies: the visual polish of these sequences in fascinating, and for a moment or two the film manages to be better than its own material. (Heck, it even had me unexpectedly patting myself on the back for watching this on Blu-ray rather than DVD.) Then Insurgent goes back to reality, a cackling Miles Teller as the wildcard (the only other actor who manages to emerge from this film with some dignity) and more groundwork laid for the next volume. As I write this, the plans for the Divergent series have almost entirely collapsed, with a planned fourth instalment being either put on hiatus or being redesigned as a TV show pilot. Given the lack of interest of the series so far, I’m not exactly complaining.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) I really like Chris Rock as a performer, so seeing him alongside Anthony Hopkins in the middle of an espionage comedy should have been interesting. But while Bad Company has its moments of inspiration, it doesn’t rise to much more than a middle-of-the-road action comedy. Unlike some similar film (and there are plenty of similarities between this one and its 2002 contemporary I Spy), Bad Company doesn’t have much in terms of action, focusing rather on the verbal sparring between Rock and Hopkins, as well as a plot that could have served as a basis for a much more serious film. Here, Rock plays a gifted street hustler who is recruited by the American government to impersonate his long-lost twin brother. Street meets high society with a big splash of undercover intrigue—you can imagine the predictable laughs that the street-smart protagonist gets once he confronts both the CIA, upper-class friends of his brother and eastern European terrorist villains. Thanks to Joel Shumacher’s competent direction, the film moves at a good clip and nearly always looks good. Still, the most memorable sequences have more to do with comedy (such as Hopkin’s lame attempt to bring him back into the fold, or whenever Kerry Washington shows up as his brother’s exploitative girlfriend) that with suspense, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As a vehicle for Rock, Bad Company isn’t bad, but it doesn’t rise much above that.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) Not every good foreign movie has to be remade by Hollywood, and the latest piece of evidence for this assertion is Secret in their Eyes, the somewhat forgettable remake of the acclaimed Argentinian thriller El secreto de sus ojos. It’s not as if this Hollywood version is completely worthless: If nothing else, here are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and a surprisingly unglamorous Julia Roberts doing their best in their given roles. I also found a provocative parallel in equating the original’s “Pinochet years” with this remake’s “post-9/11 era”. The plot is also partially streamlined, getting rid of a lot of non-essential material even though the result is still a bit too contrived and verbose to qualify as fast paced. Otherwise, though, there isn’t much here worth noticing for fans of the original, and one or two things have been taken away from the original, such as the incredible one-shot sequence that is limply made ordinary in this remake. If you haven’t seen the original and if you are in the mood for a leisurely-paced thriller, Secret in their Eyes will do the trick. For everyone else, though, it’s a mediocre film that will never earn (nor deserve) even a tenth of the attention given to the original Oscar-winning film.
(On DVD, September 2016) I’m not really surprised to find out that I dislike Lost Highway (I’m generally cold on David Lynch’s filmography), but I am surprised to realize how much I disliked it. Part of it, admittedly has to do with the terrible DVD version of the film. Seemingly recorded from a VHS tape, it has wavy lines, a 3:4 aspect ratio, no subtitles and a muddy picture quality. (Any thought that it was intentional is quickly dispelled by looking at the film’s Wikipedia page: the 2003 DVD version that I saw is almost universally reviled.) But trying to blame the DVD for the bad movie-watching experience is nonsense: the film itself is deliberately enigmatic, presenting the same roles being played by different characters, plays with dream logic, showcases bizarre imagery and doesn’t really give much through to its narrative. There is, to be charitable, a way to make sense of this, delving deep into trauma response, identity dissociation and debilitating guilt. But at this moment, I’m not interested in playing games, hunting sub-textual clues, piecing together the answer or basically doing anything but watching a story. So I flip over the table and declare defeat: I don’t like Lost Highway and I have no intention to revisiting it anytime soon. That DVD is going away, and good riddance.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, September 2016) I remember seeing Dante’s Peak in theatres and being quite a bit impressed at the special effects, town destruction and convincing re-creation of a major volcanic eruption. (I also had a bit of a crush on Linda Hamilton, so that helped.) Nearly twenty years later, given the constant evolution of CGI, would the film hold up? As it turns out, the special effects mostly do … but the overall pacing doesn’t hold up as well. Faithfully following the disaster-movie template, Dante’s Peak does struggle to find something to do in-between its spectacular (if depressing) opening sequence and the final all-out volcanic destruction of a small northwestern town. Pierce Brosnan is cool and capable as the volcanologist crying wolf, while Hamilton is credible as the small-town mayor listening to him, but the script doesn’t quite know how to create attachment to the smaller characters or keep up the tension beyond small-town drama mechanics first well-worn in Jaws. Once the volcano erupts, though, things improve sharply. The practical effects used to simulate the destruction of the town still look relatively good (even though we’ve grown accustomed to the all-out chaos made possible with CGI) and the sweeping shots of a town being buried under ash do carry a certain majesty. Director Roger Donaldson is most in his element when showcasing natural mayhem, and sequences such as the bridge passage are as good as Dante’s Peak ever gets. The ending is a bit more intense and claustrophobic than I remembered (thankfully quickly moving on to the coda) and if the film doesn’t quite hold up as a complete success, it’s still good enough to make audiences happy, especially if they can muster a bit of nostalgia for mid-nineties catastrophe films.
(Second viewing, In French, On TV, September 2016) It had been a looong time since I’d seen Predator 2, and remembered nearly nothing of it beyond the premise, a particularly gory shot and a few images of the ending. As it turns out, gradual amnesia has its perks, because if Predator 2 is (putting it mildly) not a good movie, it does feature a few things going for it. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the dystopian portrait of a crime-infested late-nineties Los Angeles, dominated by heavily armoured criminal gangs against which the police force is nearly powerless. Such fantasies are intensely linked to the early nineties (when it’s worth remembering, urban crime rates in American cities were at an all-time high, and have fallen ever since) and have the patina of alternate universes when seen from today. In this context, Danny Glover stars as a superhero cop who, while investigating gang violence, suddenly finds a far more dangerous predator at work. Add a few overbearing government agents, María Conchita Alonso as a female sidekick, dastardly criminals and night-vision shots from the predator and here we have a Lethal-Weapon-ish thriller that gradually transitions into survival horror Science-Fiction. It’s remarkably trashy, never to be taken seriously, and it only works sporadically at best. Still, it is undeniably fascinating to see how differently the people of even 26 years ago envisioned their near-future, and how that aspect of the film probably wasn’t intended to be so interesting at the time.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) Seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler riff off each other is nearly always fun, and Sisters heighten the pleasure by going to the less obvious route of making Fey the irresponsible sister, while making Poehler play the mature one. The film takes a while to get going, but it becomes markedly more enjoyable once the pieces are assembled for a wild let’s-recapture-our-youth party. Sisters, in many ways, isn’t all that different from other recent R-rated female-centred comedies (Bad Moms especially comes to mind) in blending a bit of raunch, wild pasts, property destruction and acting out against social pressures. The first hour is a bit bland, but the second one lets loose to good effect. One of the interesting things about Sisters is how it doesn’t end as soon as the party has caused thousands of dollars in damages—it keeps going, making amends and repairs. Fey is quite good as the rebellious sibling, while Poehler gets to be just as funny as the repressed one. While Sisters doesn’t amount to much more than an entertaining moment (I’d be surprised if it became anything more than a bargain-bin special, maybe as a bundle), it’s funny enough and doesn’t stop its leads from doing what they do best. Most comedies can’t even manage that, so consider this one successful.
(TMN-Go Streaming, September 2016) As far as spy comedies go, I Spy is almost exactly what it claims to be: Mismatched protagonists (Owen Wilson as a borderline-incompetent spy, Eddie Murphy as an arrogant motormouth boxer pressed in covert service), a handful of action sequences, a serviceable plot meant to string along the comic sequences and a somewhat generic East-European setting. It goes through the motion of its buddy comedy/spy movie hybrid plot, features some nice scenery and lets its lead actors do whatever they want in roles closely aligned with their persona. Wilson is fine and almost unremarkable, whereas Murphy does a little better by virtue of a showier role—his ringside introduction is remarkably effective, for instance. Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about the plot (which features an invisible super-plane parked in the middle of a city) nor the supporting character. I’m sort of amazed that I managed to miss it during all those years, and that I never realized that it was so close in tone and subject matter to Bad Company, which also came out at more or less the same time. I Spy is by no means a classic, but it’s decently entertaining once you get past the dumb script, and you even get one or two flashes of classic Eddie Murphy.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) There was a definite danger that a spin-off movie focusing on the best bit players of the Madagascar series would overexpose them, but Penguins of Madagascar surprisingly doesn’t run its subject entirely into the ground. Sure, they’re fleshed-out, lessened by their explained history, brought down by lame moments and not quite as cool over 90+ minutes than in small sketches within a longer movie, but these penguins come out of their showcase more or less as enjoyable as they were before the film, and that’s not bad. It helps that Penguins of Madagascar has a few great moments to even out the lengthier sequences. Particular note should be made about That One Continuous Shot in which the penguins jump, run and parachute down to Earth through a plane and other assorted debris. Otherwise, Skipper remains the rough voice of aggressive action, the other penguins respond ably, the film amuses itself by showcasing other animal covert agents and the action moves briskly across the globe. Only the villain seems weaker—with conflicting morals, not-cute aesthetics and a somewhat ineffectual plan, it takes a while to warm up to him, and even then not completely. Still, as an animated movie for kids, Penguins of Madagascar hits its expected targets in a frantic display of action sequences and the result is in-line with the Madagascar series so far. It could have been much, much worse, along the lines of the immediately forgettable Puss in Boots spin-off.
(In French, on Blu-ray, September 2016) I’m usually a good daddy-audience for Disney movies, and it’s difficult to forget that Beauty and the Beast is widely acknowledged as one of the best. (It was, after all, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) Plus, literature-loving Belle should align with my own preoccupations. Why, then, am I not so enthusiastic about the movie? I’m not sure, but I’m not feeling much love for the movie at the moment. Some of the songs are fine; others drag. Much of the “romance” material looks like an abusive relationship. There are some tremendously icky implications to the entire back story if you dig down a bit. At least the animation is gorgeous. I’m not sure if Disney has fiddled with the film for its 25th anniversary reissue, but the integration of the CGI with the traditional animation looks fantastic and the rest of the film also looks great. Otherwise, Beauty and the Beast feels simplistic and not-especially charming. I’m nearly certain to revisit this assessment, as Disney movies usually end up playing over and over again in my house. We’ll see if I grow fonder of it in time.
(On DVD, September 2016) There are many reasons that would explain me hating Dogville. It’s almost ludicrously long. It’s got an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. It plays games with the notion of traditional filmmaking by simplifying the sets to a chalk outline … wait, that’s actually something I like about the movie. In fact, it’s probably the reason why I feel curiously positive about it. From the very first shot, in which an entire small town is depicted as chalk outlines on a theatre stage and characters act against minimal props meant to symbolize their surroundings, Dogville goes meta even as it presents a story that doesn’t rely all that much on this abstraction. It’s fascinating for a few minutes, then intermittently interesting as the movie occasionally tries to use this limitation to work around conventional sequences. There is a lot of narration, some of it intrusive in the manner of a classic novel. Various high-profile actors (notably Nicole Kidman, who plays a punching back for half the film, but also Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård and narrator John Hurt) are puppets in writer/director Lars von Trier’s hands as he presents a lengthy and cynical take on human nature, filled with ordinary townspeople turning abusive toward a designated victim. It’s horrifying to the point where the violent take-no-prisoners finale feels satisfying to a ghoulish degree. While not appealing to the angels of our better nature, Dogville does earn a few points for style … even though this may not be a film to be watched a second time.
(On DVD, September 2016) I’m really not a fan of Dogme 95 (to which Festen loudly claim fealty): I think that movies should be manufactured as deliberately as possible, heighten reality and leave realism far behind. (Also: “Genre movies are not acceptable.”? Go get lost.) I’m no fan of family dramas, I only reluctantly like some of writer/director Thomas Vinterberg’s other movies (I can rant against It’s All About Love, but I can also rant in favour of Jagten) and the home-movie aesthetics usually drives me nuts. So I was primed to dislike Festen a lot. While I’m not quite ready to proclaim that I liked it, I think that by the end of the punishing two-hour bout, I had achieved a grudging respect for the film and the way it shows a horrifying revelation at what is supposed to be a celebratory family banquet. Family feuds are set up and detonated, yet the tone isn’t quite as dark as you’d expect. Still, Festen does feel like a lot of work to get to its best features: its insistence on realism actually puts up a supplemental layer to untangle before getting to the heart of the matter. I’d frankly rather have a conventional film dealing with the same issues, as traditional moviemaking does actually spend a lot of energy focusing on the core of its argument. But, hey, it’s something different and more than two decades later, we’ve seen the limits of what Dogme 95 could achieve. Festen works because it’s better than its straightjacket, not because of it.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) Every subculture has its persecution complex and hence its insurrection fantasy through which they’ll show the mainstream how wrong they were to be marginalized. How High is “just” another stoner comedy, but it’s more interesting if you see it as a blueprint for conquering the mainstream. Never mind the setup in which two potheads gain quasi-magical intelligence after smoking the remnants of their dead friend—it’s what happens once they get accepted to Harvard that’s interesting. Because, once they’re there, they proceed to take over the esteemed institution, offend the bourgeoisie, humiliate their bullies, tear down statues, rewrite history (“Benjamin Franklin was a huge stoner!”) and seduce white women (but only as a sideshow to ending up with good black women). It’s quite impressive once you look at it this way … which is roughly the only way to make How High more interesting than just a stoner fantasy. At least Method Man and Redman aren’t bad in the lead roles, with compelling performances carrying through the film. Otherwise, there isn’t much in How High that hasn’t been assembled from other similar films—they’re designed for a specific cult audience, and there are limits to the mass appeal that such a production can have. Otherwise, there isn’t much satisfaction to be found in the disjointed, broad, episodic, intermittently amusing result. As a comedy, How High is pretty much what it tries to be. As a stoner insurrection fantasy, though, it’s provocative in its own way.
(On DVD, September 2016) Charlize Theron got considerable acclaim for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, and more than ten years later it’s still easy to see why. Straddling the line between sympathy and revulsion for its subject, this is a film that takes us to the bottom of American society, alongside people so rejected by the system that they become prey for predators barely above them. After being abused, rejected, thrown out and exploited, one woman snaps and kills a man who clearly intended to brutalize her. Having tasted revenge, her next few kills are far more deliberate. A rare true-life example of a female serial killer, Wuornos’ case (as portrayed in this film) becomes a cautionary tale about people with nothing to lose, and how badly the system can fail them. It’s certainly not meant to excuse what she did, as even Wuornos’ lover can’t possibly condone her actions and runs away. This is in no way a pleasant, uplifting or comforting film. But Monster’s anchor is truly Theron’s performance, about as unglamorous as she can be with extra pounds, prosthetic teeth, terrible complexion and bad posture: Theron walked away with a few awards for this one (including an Oscar), and it’s hard to disagree. The film itself is fine, but with Theron in the lead role it becomes remarkable.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) To its credit, The 5th Wave begins reasonably well, with a first few minutes seemingly going past the usual teenage dystopian tropes in order to land in more serious territory than usual for the genre. But once that introduction concludes, the subgenre’s clichés take over. The film gets dumber, senseless and clichéd at once. Big revelations can be seen coming minutes in advance and there’s little here to warm up savvy viewers who have already seen everything before. Acting-wise, Dakota Fanning gets the heavy lifting of the main role, but Maika Monroe comes in and steals a few scenes. There are a few nice moments of devastation early on, but there’s no denying that The 5th Wave is a movie coming out five or two years too late, after the alien-invasion panic of 2010 or the teenage-dystopia craze of 2014. But so it goes when a sub-genre’s bubble pops: there are always going to be movies caught in the aftermath. I’m not feeling too bad about this trilogy never achieving its second and third instalments—a quick look at Wikipedia’s plot summary of the follow-up novels quickly shows how insane, rote and depressing the series becomes over time. While everyone should congratulate themselves on killing off the teenage dystopian trend, it’s an end that couldn’t come fast enough to prevent the very disappointing The 5th Wave. But let’s not worry: no-one will remember this film in five years, except as part of an actor’s filmography.