(On TV, October 2016) I have no affection and only little academic interest in the slasher genre. It’s not a kind of film that I enjoy (although I’m not opposed to other supernatural horror genres), but in trying to build a coherent picture of the horror genre over the past few decades, it’s often necessary to watch some reprehensible films along the way. Halloween remains a reference largely due to its influence on the horror genre in the following decade, in which an explosion of similar films dominated the lower rungs of the B-movie ecosystem. (I was five in 1980 and ten in 1985, so you can imagine the nostalgic memories of discovering VHS stores at the time and their terrifying cassette box art.) Knowing this, the biggest surprise in watching Halloween is how restrained it is: While there is disturbing violence, it rarely revels in the gore and terror of the victims. While there is teenage hanky-panky, there is no nudity. While the film sustains an atmosphere of dread and suspense, it feels far less exploitative than many of the films it influences. There’s a fair case to be made that Halloween is closer to a thriller than to horror and while I don’t entirely agree, this is a film now most notable for the tropes it does not use. Director John Carpenter is at the top of his game here, and the direction of the film remains remarkable even today. (The opening point-of-view sequence is still upsetting even at an age of found-footage films.) It’s also difficult to avoid mentioning the iconic soundtrack of the film, which set an example that would dominate a slew of eighties films. A very young Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic in the lead role. While the film remains a slasher, it’s a competently executed one even today (and especially considering its low budget). It’s striking, however, how much of Halloween’s impact is now dictated by the movies it influenced than by itself.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) I have always been cautiously positive about the X-Men film series, largely because (especially at first, when there weren’t that many good comic-book movies around) it has always put themes and characters front-and-centre, thus earning extra respectability as comic-book movies with something deeper to say. Lately, the shift to historical periods with First Class was good for style, but with Apocalypse, it looks as if the X-Men series has reached a point of diminishing returns. The themes of alienation and discrimination are more than well-worn by now, and it seems as if the series struggles to find anything more to say about it. It certainly doesn’t help that the film goes back to a hackneyed villain-wants-to-destroy-everything premise: This is exactly the kind of city-destroying stuff that has been done ad nauseam in other superhero movies, and the generic antagonist (a complete waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents) doesn’t help. Other issues annoy: the teenage angst of the X-Men is getting old, and so is the fan service to trying to cram as many characters as possible, especially Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Jennifer Lawrence’s increasingly useless Mystique. There are, to be fair, a few lovely sequences here—the Quicksilver sequence is, just as the preceding film, a joy to watch. Olivia Munn looks good despite being in a handful of scenes. It’s hard to dislike James MacEvoy as Charles Xavier or Nicholas Hoult as Beast. But Apocalypse seems far more generic than its predecessor, and suffers even more from a close comparison to Deadpool’s self-aware sarcastic exuberance. The period setting isn’t used effectively, and the film has some lengthy scenes that play out like all similar scenes in other similar movies. Even under director Bryan Singer’s helm, the result is flat, dull, mediocre and a dead end as far as the series is concerned. The next instalment (because we know there will be another instalment) better shake things up, otherwise it’s going to tailspin into the kind of movies that viewers won’t bother to see.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) What happens when you drop two good (even underrated) actors in a generic formula film? You get something that’s worth watching even if the film itself is almost entirely forgettable. After all, it doesn’t get more hackneyed that a home-invasion thriller in which a dangerous escaped criminal fixates on a woman left alone at home—during a storm, no less! But, with some capable directing and Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henderson arguably slumming in the lead roles, No Good Deed becomes almost watchable despite a blatantly predictable plot and much nonsense along the way. I’m really not fond of the way that the film ends up tying both the aggressor and the victim together—it’s a far scarier concept to imagine just a random criminal—but I’ll allow it in the spirit of hackneyed plotting. Elba is far too good to play one-dimensional criminal, but he does it so well that it’s hard to be mad at him. Meanwhile, Henderson has a far more interesting role as the victim who ends up protecting her children while fighting back at the aggression, even when it moves away from her house. No Good Deed isn’t much more than B-grade exploitation filmmaking, but thanks to its lead actors it remains compelling throughout, which is a great deal better than other movies of its ilk.
(On DVD, October 2016) I have an unaccountable fondness for high-concept films, and since Brick can be summed up as “high-school noir”, you can imagine that I liked it quite a bit. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt stars as an outcast in his own school, abruptly asked to investigate a sordid story involving murder, drugs, sex and organized crime. It could have been a comedy or a satire, but it turns out that writer/director Rian Johnson cleverly chooses to play things as straight as he can: For all of the tough-guy dialogue, femme fatales, bleak atmosphere and rough play of the classic noir elements, Brick does not smirk to its audience nor wallow in self-awareness: it simply plays with the typical elements of hard-boiled noir crime fiction within a high school and sees where things go. We never spend much time in class and most of the adults are useless to the teenage characters, but the very cool result makes the most of its low budget. While Brick probably earns a lot of attention nowadays for being the feature film debut of a writer/director who has since delivered two solid films and is poised to direct the next big Star Wars movie, it’s a solid, perfectly enjoyable film in its own right. Noir fans in particular will simply love it.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Surprisingly, maybe, there isn’t much to say about Angry Birds other than it’s a serviceable animated film for kids. That may be an achievement in itself—it’s an adaptation of a wildly popular videogame and those rarely lead to decent movies. But Angry Bird faithfully follows the current kids-animated-films playbook and if the result isn’t particularly memorable, it’s not terrible either. Bright and colourful, the universe of the film works as a foundation for the gags and while the story isn’t complex, it also serves its purpose. Notwithstanding some uncomfortable anti-immigrant plot threads (and it’s easy to be hypersensitive to those in 2016), this is mostly innocuous entertainment, enlivened by action sequences, musical numbers and various jokes. Fans of the game may or may not be disappointed to see that the big-screen version of Angry Birds doesn’t rely on the game mechanics all that much: Only one sequence re-creates the launching-birds idea and it happens to be one of the funniest of the film. Otherwise, the voice talent is fine, Rovio Animation doesn’t embarrass itself in its feature-film debut and Angry Birds is in the honest average for animated movies.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Hmm. As much as I’d like to be the well-meaning optimist who thinks that there shouldn’t be a Marvel-vs-DC movie rivalry and that great movies are good for everyone, I must confess that lately, DC’s artistic choices (i.e.; handing over the series to Zack Snyder, going for angst-and-gloom, kick-starting a shared universe without building the groundwork) have led me to see them as the incompetent villains to Marvel’s generally competent spectacle factory. As much as I would have liked Batman v Superman to prove me wrong, it ends up confirming what a lot of reviewers are saying to DC: “Gaaah, what are you thinking?” The thing is, I like some of what they’re doing. The idea of building upon Man of Steel’s ruins (literally) and presenting a glum vision of how Superman would be received in a more realistic context is not bad. Snyder is often a gifted visual stylist with an eye for arresting images. Introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character before her big film is pretty good. Ben Affleck is great as a grizzled Batman, Jesse Eisenberg has a promising take on Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot makes us look forward to Wonder-Woman, while Henry Cavill is picture-perfect as Superman. But the blend of those elements together proves to be weaker than expected, harmed by bad editing, a lack of flow and ponderous pacing. By the time in the opening credits it takes five (or ten?) seconds for the slow-motion gun to tear through Martha Wayne’s pearls, it’s obvious that Batman v. Superman is going to have severe pacing issues, spending forever on trivial details, while fast-forwarding through the plot. The grimness of the tone is unrelenting, and the confusion between subplots makes the extended dream/prophecy/time-travel sequence looks far weaker than expected. It all amounts to an operatic carnival of sound a fury, signifying not much besides setting up another instalment in the series: By now, we’ve come so accustomed to those calculations that the death of a major character seems more like perfunctory fake drama than anything worth taking seriously. So it goes in the DC superhero movie mould: “Just wait for the next movies (or the director’s cut)! We’ll swear it’ll be better!” Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll see it anyway when it hits cable TV. I just won’t look forward to it.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) By this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we should be used both to mere competency and the dangers of expecting too much. So it is that Captain America: Civil War is both a pretty good piece of pop entertainment, and one that probably won’t change all that much in the series despite its grandiose title. It does have the good sense of taking its dramatic motives in the past movies of the MCU, showcasing the death and destruction of previous instalments as excuse to contain the superheroes of the series. Conflict soon erupts when some of the superheroes rather arbitrarily divined themselves based on who thinks it’s a good idea and who doesn’t. It all leads to a fantastic airport fight, and then a not-so-fantastic fist-fight between Iron Man and Captain America. At least the action sequences are handled crisply by the Russo brothers, while the script is up to the usual Marvel standards—which is to say, competent but a good step short of impressive. Then again, Marvel hasn’t become a powerhouse studio without learning what makes for a decent blockbuster, and Civil War is another example of how the studio can give the illusion of change without necessarily threatening its cash cows. Performances are fine: Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, while Robert Downey Jr. is his usual self as Tony Stark. A surprising number of characters, both old and new, turn up in this non-Avengers film, redefining expectations of scale when it comes to MCU mid-phase movies. The blend of comedy, character moments, thrills and visuals is up to the Marvel standard. Even Daniel Bruhl’s villain is a bit better than usual; well motivated, devious and arguably even successful in the end. It all leads to a conclusion that slightly changes the status quo, but leaves enough hints that it can be resolved rather quickly in time for the next instalment. After seeing the nonchalant way Hydra was built up and then destroyed in-between chapters, it’s best to keep expectations low and simply go along for the ride. Parallels with the contemporary Batman vs Superman (which shares quite a few plot points) are strongly in Marvel’s favour. Now let’s hope than it can keep this streak of competence going well into the future.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) I’m not an unconditional fan of horror movies, so I like to keep an eye out for the well-reviewed ones. Over the past years, that has netted me good recommendations for The Conjuring, It Follows and The Babadook. Alas, the hype isn’t always a guarantee of enjoyment, and that’s how we end up talking about The Witch and how it falls short of my expectations. I’m not necessarily opposed to what writer/director Robert Eggers is trying to do as a slow-paced but realistic portrayal of horror in early-colonial America. Make sure to turn up those subtitles, because The Witch embraces 1630s speech patterns to a degree that even native English speakers may find difficult to parse. That’s not necessarily a problem (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” makes for a heck of a defining quote.). What is more of a problem is the tepid pacing, which has the dual effect of making viewers anxious for the next plot development and then making that development seem inevitable. For all the good I can think about the film’s deliberate control over its material, the quality of the cinematography, the sheer audaciousness of proposing a historically accurate witch story in today’s horror marketplace, or its not-so-subtle feminist themes, The Witch is far from being as interesting as I had hoped. By the time the ending rolls by, having concentrated most of its shock in the last few minutes, we’re left satiated but not satisfied. I’m glad to have seen it, but I’m not going to rave about it as I did with some other recent horror movies.
(On DVD, October 2016) Denzel Washington and Spike Lee are a good match, and He Got Game is a great use of their combined talents. Washington is spectacular as the convict asked to convince his estranged basketball-prodigy son to sign up for a particular college. His usual mixture of swagger, danger, charm and grumpiness work well here, and I’m hardly the first critic to note the comforting blend of traditional traits that make up his persona’s masculinity. But even his character’s power as a man quickly reaches its limits when his estranged son rebuffs him, and how his example has to rival with the trappings of fame, sex and money. He may not even be the main character in the story, given how much of the film slowly slides over to his son’s character and the choice he has to make as the film progresses. Lee’s impressionistic directing flourishes work well in this context, and add a depth of complexity to the characters’ inner struggles. Good supporting performances by Ray Allen (an athlete playing the son), Rosario Dawson and Milla Jovovich also help, as does a good sense of street-level New York. It wraps up in a good conclusion, and leaves viewers satisfied—although finding out what happened to those character five, ten years later would be interesting.
(On TV, October 2016) Although presented as a mostly-innocuous romantic comedy (by definition, almost every film featuring Jennifer Aniston is bound to be innocuous), there is a troubling streak to The Switch’s titular premise (which has to do with, ah, mislabelled insemination) that makes the film challenging to enjoy on the level at which it’s offered. By the time the paternity issues are matched with the weighty passage of years, The Switch becomes far more unsettling than your average rom-com. It still manages to work, largely because of Jason Bateman’s blend of sympathy and antisocial faults. (I used to think of him as a likable straight man in his immediate post-Arrested Development film career, but if you look carefully at his roles since then, his persona has developed this growing streak of repellent behaviour—in other words, he’s become a credible bastard.) Meanwhile, Aniston’s persona seems to be a prisoner of the film’s plot twists—much like her character. Jeff Goldblum does show up periodically as a sympathetic boss, while Juliette Lewis continues to prove that she’s often best used in small comic roles. The Switch does end rather well, but there are a few squirm-inducing moments along the way, and the result may be more sombre than anyone expected.
(On TV, October 2016) I’m not a big fan of David Lynch’s film, and even my tepid linking for Wild at Heart shows why. In some ways one of the tamest, most accessible films in Lynch’s oeuvre, Wild at Heart often feels like a wild melodrama pushed to eleven, with graphic sex and violence far exceeding anything that could be considered reasonable. Nicolas Cage is in classic exuberant form as a small-time criminal eloping with his love and gradually being drawn back into a life of violence. Meanwhile, Laura Dern shows more of herself than ever before (repeatedly) as a young woman escaping from the clutches of her mother via a road trip with no clear end goal. Sex and crime figure heavily in the result, cranking the exploitation factor of the film but not exactly helping it being taken seriously. Wild at Heart now feels like a low-octane Natural Born Killers at time, like a softcore thriller at others. It is rarely boring, though but even though I feel as if the R-rated material should help raise my opinion of the film, Lynch’s gleefully obtuse direction doesn’t help. Wild at Heart is far tamer than some of his more outrageous film—still, I can’t help that providing just a bit more guidance to viewers would not be such a bad thing. And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much my reaction to Lynch’s oeuvre: would it kill him to be just a bit more understandable?
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) I actually wanted to like The Lobster more than I did. In theory, I agree with the idea that we need more absurdist comedies, that fantasy is a great way to talk about the human condition through metaphors (why do you think I like Science Fiction so much?) and that not all of human experience has to fit in the “married with children” paradigm. The Lobster tries to fulfill all of those wishes, but the way it does so isn’t quite the one I was hoping for. While billed as a comedy, The Lobster can be surprisingly violent and unpleasant, going from one extreme to another without quite finding the synthesis of its sides along the way. It deliberately ends on ambiguity, but that doesn’t necessarily bother me as much as the carefully deliberate way it seems to take place in another kind of reality, without necessarily portraying believable human emotions. The early inventiveness of the opening half isn’t quite matched by the second one, and the absurdity of the premise often sabotages any attempt at taking it all more seriously. It is, in other words, a deliberately artificial film, and it doesn’t take much to snap out of it if you even have the slightest objection or question. There are layers of meaning, of course, and ways to argue endlessly about the slightest detail. It doesn’t take things seriously nor comfortingly—the deconstruction of marriage is as brutal as anything else seen recently on this side of Gone Girl, and the laughter can feel a bit hollow when confronted to such bleak existentialism. At least Colin Farrell (in his post-stardom tour of fascinating roles) is pretty good, and he’s surrounded by equally capable players such as John C. Reilly and Rachel Weisz. Still, the star here is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, who brings his own unique sensibility to a film that no-one else would have executed in the same way. The Lobster is a perfect date movie for philosophy majors—but I’m not sure about anyone else.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I’ve been re-watching a lot of pre-1997 movies lately, mostly films that I saw before starting to put capsule reviews on this web site. Much of the time, it’s an imposed event: the films haven’t aged well, fall short of what I remember, or don’t benefit from the power of discovery. And then there are exceptions like Beetlejuice, who ends up being just as good, if not better, than what I remembered. Beetlejuice is peak Tim Burton after all, blending gentle horror and black comedy in a mixture that remains largely unique even today. Alec Baldwin is fun as a good-hearted character (especially after his persona solidified in cad roles) while Geena Davis is spectacular as his wife. Winona Rider is remarkable as a goth teen, but it’s Michael Keaton who remains the film’s biggest asset, delivering an unbridled performance as Beetlejuice that remains, even today, a bit of an oddity in a far more restrained filmography. The special effects are still terrific, and their pre-CGI jerkiness adds to the film’s charm. Beetlejuice still works well largely because it’s so off-beat, doing and considering things that would be polished away in today’s far more controlled environment. The two musical numbers are a delight, and the macabre gags still feel faintly daring. It’s a film that certainly doesn’t overdo its welcome and scarcely more than 90 minutes, and it’s still a lot of fun as a comedic Halloween choice. See it if you haven’t, see it again if it’s been awhile—chances are that you will be surprised at how well it holds up.
(On DVD, October 2016) I don’t necessarily watch films based on casting, but Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are enough to make anyone interested in Sunshine Cleaning. The premise itself does have a bit of a kick to it, as two down-on-their-luck sisters decide to go in business as crime scene cleanup specialists. Alas, casting and premise probably oversell the true nature of the film, an unglamorous and grounded (bordering on depressing) drama about dysfunctional people trying to keep it together. Don’t expect laughs by the barrel, don’t expect Adams or Blunt to vamp it up and don’t expect a triumphant ending. Albuquerque shows up without artifice, the story generally takes place in working-class settings in-between strip malls and noisy family restaurants. While this down-to-earthiness may disappoint a number of potential fans, Sunshine Cleaning does achieve most of the marks it sets for itself as a sentimental drama. Adams and Blunt get to stretch acting skills that often get forgotten in their broader movies, and Arkin is a delight even if his role doesn’t stray from his post Little Miss Sunshine persona. It may not amount to the glossy blockbuster comedy that the film could have become with a few tweaks, but Sunshine Cleaning works and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I didn’t exactly approach Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with the most enthusiastic expectations. The zombie craze peaked a long time ago, I’ve never been able to fully embrace Jane Austin’s work (despite my best intentions) and the idea of mashing up the undead within the framework of an Austin novel never seemed like anything but a novelty. This lack of enthusiasm may end up explaining my modestly good reaction to the result. I’m perhaps most impressed at the breadth of the zombie story that original novel author Seth Grahame-Smith has managed to sneak in-between the Austen narrative framework, with an apocalyptic vision of a zombie-infested Great Britain split in zones, four horsemen of the Apocalypse and antagonists actively working for the other side. Portraying Mister Darcy and the Bennett sisters as effective action heroes is amusing (such as when a mild-mannered conversation is portrayed through a waiting room combat, or when blades are sheathed next to lingerie.), while the historical production values are just as credible as any BBC drama. The flip side of such a mash-up, though, are that the surprisingly short film barely has time to race through its twin strands of plotting. The elements kept intact from the Austen novel are covered as if viewers already knew about that (a good but imperfect assumption), while the horror sequences have to live in-between other mandatory elements. The result may be entertaining, but the better it gets the more frustrating it becomes: While Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is good enough to avoid being a mere curio, it shows more than a glimmer of the much better film it could have been under other circumstances. Lily James and Sam Riley are fine in the two main roles, but read the list of actors and directors initially considered for the project and weep at the thought of the versions that alternate universes got to see. It’s probably best to keep expectations in check and wonder at the oddity that did make it on-screen: It’s remarkably easy to watch, amusing in its willingness to blend two different genres together and more ambitious than your run-of-the-mill zombie movie.