(On Cable TV, October 2016) Don’t blame yourself for assuming that a low-budget Canadian film titled Bed of the Dead is B-grade shlock, most likely of the self-aware camp type. After all, it’s pitched on IMDB as “Four twentysomethings find themselves stuck on a haunted antique bed where leaving means suffering a gruesome death”. But even the first few moments of the film challenge that preconception. As the better-than-average cinematography and audacious script reveal a fractured timeline and a thematic concern for redemption, Bed of the Dead become far more respectable than expected. Such ambitions are double-edged: It’s easier to forgive a dumb spoof than a film that takes itself seriously, so it’s fair to mention Bed of the Dead’s disjointed plot, unconvincing moments, incoherent ideas, stock characters and unspectacular dialogues. The very nature of the bedlam is handled without rigour, making this a horror movie of the “anything can happen for any reason!” variety. Still, it’s a film that achieves more than expected: Despite budget limitations and a ridiculous premise, Bed of the Dead delivers good visuals and a twisty structure that works better than the framing device it initially appears to be. Writer/director Jeff Maher capably juggles the elements of the film and leaves a mark. More intriguing than the campy gore-fest it could have been, Bed of the Dead will find a place alongside other better-than-expected Canadian horror movies, worth catching with the right frame of mind.
(On TV, October 2016) No matter how bowdlerized and sanitized it can be, there’s something faintly wrong in seeing a network TV remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When mainstream crashes into a celebration of weird, the results can be fascinating but not necessarily satisfying. I have some geeky attachment to the original Rocky Horror Picture Show (which opened in North America a few days after I was born), but no slavish devotion to it: I haven’t seen it in more than fifteen years, I barely identify with what it celebrates and as the generally faithful remake unfolded, I suddenly remembered without enthusiasm how eccentric its latter half could be. But you don’t have to be a proud genderfluid weirdo (in the best meaning of the expression) to wonder whether this TV remake undermines or reinforces whatever the original meant. At best, this remake is an excuse for an exuberant musical (“let’s do the Time Warp again” indeed). At worst, it’s just as undisciplined and meandering than the original. Not all of the actors can do justice to the material—Laverne Cox does well as the iconic Frank N. Furter, but her casting completely changes the nature of the role and raises issues I fear to explore. Others seem to be happy to play famous roles, but few seem to embrace the campiness of the material (although Christina Milian does so fairly well). This homage boldly incorporates the cult-movie talkbacks in a framing device that’s half-realized at best, and manages to find a way to incorporate Tim Curry. Still, the glitzy result seems sanitized to the point of losing half its meaning: Even though this remake shows how far along mainstream TV has evolved, the point of the Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been in its off-beat sensibilities, defiantly offering an alternative to normalcy. This remake, playing at eight o’clock on a weekday night, really isn’t. On the other hand, it remains sporadically fun … so there’s that.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Even though The Infiltrator is based on the true story of a DEA agent who bent the rules in order to infiltrate Cartel operations, there is something extremely familiar with the way the film goes about its business. In a way, it may be inevitable: the mob informer genre is well-worn by now, and an agent-in-disguise plot is not that fundamentally different from the good-guy-over-his-head narrative. Still, the Infiltrator gives it a go, and the results aren’t bad at all. Bryan Cranston stars as the titular infiltrator, playing mob accountant by day and returning how to his wife by night. The tensions there are well-exploited, as is the contrast between the high-rolling lifestyle of the crooked and corrupt compared to the humdrum reality of a federal employee. The story does take overblown turns at times, such as the climax set at a fake wedding. Still, The Infiltrator keeps its focus on the impact of undercover work on its protagonist, the difficulty in separating real friendship from fake façade, and sprinkles it with a sheer on early-nineties Miami chic. While the result doesn’t fare particularly well in the crime-movie pantheon, The Infiltrator is more than good enough to be entertaining.
(On DVD, October 2016) I am surprised. While I’ve had a high opinion of the well-executed American version of The Ring ever seeing it in theatres (in retrospect, it’s one of the best horror movies of the early naughties, effectively embracing dread rather than gore as its modus operandi), I expected the original Japanese version to be equally effective, if not more so. Isn’t it always like that when comparing American remakes to their original? But as Ringu unfolded, I found myself in the curious position of preferring the US version. Not that the original is bad. But it is slow, and its Japanese origins do place a barrier between viewers and story that is not as perceptible in the Americanized version. The US version isn’t just slicker: it’s more effective. It knows that it’s a horror film, and it doesn’t shy away from maintaining a tension-filled atmosphere throughout the entire film. Ringu, on the other hand, can often be mistaken for a thriller or even a drama. Despite following more or less the same structure, it doesn’t hit peak dread until very late in the film and while the iconic scene that caps it off remains effective, its impact has been blunted by its equally effective recreation in the American remake. As much as I’d like to pull my snobbish film-critic credentials and dismiss the remake in order to praise the original, my sympathies are clear: I’ll take the American version as the definitive version of the story. I guess once won’t become a habit.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) Straight-up domestic drama really isn’t my cup of cinematic tea, but there is something compelling about A Separation’s down-to-earth plot, with its ordinary characters going through a crisis with no real right or wrong side. A chronicle of a few tumultuous weeks in the life of a modern Iranian family, A Separation is also a peek inside a society that is usually willfully misunderstood in (North) America—Iran as it exists today, with its own justice system, social taboos, modern problems and human emotions. The plot has to do with a separation between spouses, an ailing father, an abusive husband, a bullied girl, a miscarriage and plenty of misunderstandings, but it’s also about ordinary life in a country perhaps not too dissimilar when it comes to its ordinary people. While the film requires a bit of an investment (it’s more than two hours long, and it does take a while to become truly engaging), it does provide return on that investment. Some skillful direction by Asghar Farhadi helps clarify what could have been challenging to understand for non-Iranian viewers. It’s quite an experience, even if you’re not the kind of person who usually goes for those films.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) I expected more from D.E.B.S. The initial setup (Young women recruited in a bubble-gum spy organization through SAT test results) isn’t bad and the overall premise (same-sex romance between spy and terrorist mastermind) does have a kick to it. But the way D.E.B.S. is executed usually falls flat. While the film embraces campiness, low-budget production techniques and ridiculous humour, the overall result feels a bit too forced to be enjoyable. The campiness isn’t an antidote for bland dialogue and dumb humour, and there’s a feeling throughout the film that the filmmakers would rather wink and nudge to the audience rather than beef up the script. The low-budget aesthetics (constant green screens, artificial staging, excessive cross-cutting without establishing shots) get tiresome after a while and reinforce the amateurish nature of the film. D.E.B.S. occasionally jolts to life whenever there’s a good line or two, and greatly benefits from the presence of Fast and the Furious alumni Jordana Brewster and Devon Aoki, but ultimately it looks like a punchline in search of a decent setup. The first few minutes’ comic inventiveness is quickly reduced to nearly nothing, while the girl-girl hero/villain romance doesn’t quite gel into something more than moderately interesting. I will certainly give it points for being something self-assuredly different from the norm (and, obviously, being a passion project for writer/director Angela Robinson), but there’s a leap from there to a genuinely enjoyable film that D.E.B.S. doesn’t quite take. It may be worth a look as a curiosity, but otherwise it’s a disappointment even without high expectations.
(On DVD, October 2016) For some reason, Tim Robbins’s persona in my head has solidified as a bit of a semi-presidential intellectual at this point. So it feels surprising to see him ham it up in Nothing to Lose as an ad executive whose life crumbles to dust and is forced to ally himself with a disreputable quasi-criminal. The surprises don’t stop there: Martin Lawrence is almost likable as the motormouth criminal, which doesn’t reflect the unbearableness of his later performances. The rest of the film, though, plays almost on autopilot, with only a few surprises along the way. The first act chronicles how a successful man appears to lose nearly everything, while the second act shows him regrouping and the third taking vengeance against someone who has apparently wronged him. It’s familiar stuff, unimaginably contrived but moved along at a decent clip. Twenty years later, it’s potable but hardly revelatory—the social issues in allying a white executive with a black quasi-criminal film are nearly the same in 2016, which is depressing enough. At least there are a few laughs along the way. The soundtrack nearly feels like a time capsule at this point. While Nothing to Lose isn’t essential viewing, it’s not a complete waste of time either.
(On DVD, October 2016) Slightly raunchier than the usual romantic comedy, What’s Your Number? works best as a showcase for the comic charm of Anna Faris and Chris Evans rather than anything worth pondering too deeply. Once again straddling the conflicted attitudes toward sex in mainstream American comedy, the titular number refers to the total number of sexual partners for any given person. Our protagonist tortures herself in implausible plot twists in an effort not to shamefully exceed a total of twenty—meanwhile, the male romantic lead is never questioned for whatever exponentially higher number he has. But delving under the hood of romantic comedies never works in their favour, so the point here is rather to see Faris and Evans develop an easy chemistry, waiting for the lies to catch up to the protagonists and seeing the amusing episodes in which the lead character reconnects (or doesn’t) with her ex-boyfriends. It ends pretty much as expected fifteen minutes in, which isn’t necessarily a compliment (even for someone with a high tolerance for romantic-comedy conventions) given the unbelievable contortions the third act has to undergo in order to prevent it from happening too quickly. The rest of What’s Your Number? is mildly amusing if you’re in the mood for such things. And if that sounds like faint praise, well…
(On Cable TV, October 2016) It’s unfair to judge movies on the merits of later ones, but watching The Mothman Prophecies, I couldn’t help but think that this kind of material (horror movie shifting in prophesied disaster movie) was executed to much better effect in the 2009 thriller Knowing. Here, the film seems to dawdle a long time on a series of barely connected phenomena, never quite pulling everything in a coherent whole. Despite the early promise of supernatural phenomena occurring over electric or electronic networks, the film takes a far more muddled approach to its central horror. It doesn’t help that the scares are low-octane, and that the film seems to coast a long time on weirdness rather than build something up. By the time everything pulls together, the spectacle of a disaster (with shades of Final Destination) manages to be interesting in a wholly different way than the horror film that has unspooled for the previous hour. Richard Gere and Laura Linney are merely fine in the lead roles, but this isn’t the kind of film to coax any kind of remarkable performance. The Mothman Prophecies manages to eke out a narrow victory over a “dull” rating by virtue of a disconnected action climax, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Why don’t you watch Knowing again instead?
(On Cable TV, October 2016) There are two movies competing for attention Grimsby, and one of them is far better than the other. There’s the somewhat energetic spy thriller, featuring Mark Strong doing what he does best as a no-nonsense special operative trying to stop a terrorist plot. That part of the movie is directed with glee and energy by Louis Leterrier (a veteran when it comes to special-effects-heavy spectacle), goes by smoothly even as it doesn’t reinvent the genre. But then there’s the other movie, the crude gross-out comedy that focuses on Sacha Baron Cohen usual brand of comic vulgarity. Racing to the bottom of offensiveness, Grimsby features … well, I’m not going to describe it if it’s going to either disturb or intrigue you. Suffice to say that as the film uses the spy-movie framework for lowbrow gags, Grimsby becomes increasingly dispiriting. If there’s a case to be made about wasted time, money and effort in the service of something that makes the world worse for existing … yes, this is a serious contender for worst-movie-of-the-year status. Or would be if it wasn’t for the few sequences that manage to shake off its particularly revolting humour in favour of some solid action beats. Oh well; at least the movie was a box-office failure, mitigating the risks that we’ll ever see a sequel.
(On DVD, October 2016) The premise of “Two best friends turn into competing bridezillas!” seems so high-concept that Bride Wars should write itself without trouble, right? And yet, this is a film that seems so unaccountably full of missed opportunities, dull scenes and odd character moments that it often feels that it’s intentionally shooting itself in the foot. The result isn’t terrible, if only for seeing Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway return to basic broad comedy. Some of the comic set pieces are amusing, and the supporting performances by Candice Bergen and Kristen Johnson can be amusing. But as the film advances, blind to more comic opportunities, it also turns gratuitously sour (as per the Emma/Fletcher subplot) and so far-fetched that the seemingly happy conclusion feels unearned—even contrived to be unsatisfying. There are so many obvious ways the story could have turned out without arbitrarily going through its checklist of plot points that the final result seems like a lazy patchwork at best, wholly manipulated at worse. Even for the notoriously lax standards of romantic comedies, Bride Wars seems like a misfire, which is too bad given the premise and calibre of the people involved.
(On TV, October 2016) The real story of Stephen Glass is improbable to the point of being unbelievable: A young reporter for a well-respected publication, boldly manufacturing stories and passing them up as facts. Yet it happened, and Shattered Glass provides a welcome sense of outrage about it all. Did it portend a media ecosystem in which truth isn’t quite as important as click-through? As for the film itself, it’s a quiet, procedural drama that thankfully delves deep into the minutia of magazine reporting and fact-checking … if only to show how Glass consciously gamed the system and faked his sources to the point of creating fake web sites and enlisting confederates to answer the phone. The mid-nineties are slowly accumulating a nostalgic patina. Perhaps inevitably, the character of Stephen Glass himself is obnoxious to the point of being detestable, transparently trying to ingratiate himself while covering his track. It’s probably a compliment to say that I profoundly hated Hayden Christensen’s performance. The rest of the characters are far more morally admirable, and a few surprise appearances spice up the film: Peter Sarsgaard is likable as an ambitious editor who is forced to confront the monster he has enabled, while Steve Zahn, Hank Azaria and Rosario Dawson show up as secondary players. I’m not particularly fond of the ironic framing device of having Glass’s character speak to a high school class about the ethics of journalism, but the rest of the film has a good forward momentum, especially considering the sometimes-abstract subject nature. It helps that the film seems reasonably true to the facts. At a time when solid journalism is under fire, it’s heartening to see movies such as Shattered Glass and people such as writer/director Billy Ray grapple with some of its core tenets, and how good people have to take action to drive away the bad.
(On TV, October 2016) I’m an easy mark for movies about writers, and Stuck in Love does revolve around a broken family where both the father and his two children are writers. Of course, it’s not primarily about writing as much as it’s a romantic comedy about a man pining away for his separated wife, his kids urging him to move on, and assorted hijinks once the kids get into their own romantic entanglements. It ends on a number of happy notes, as it should. Greg Kinnear is OK as the main character, but Lily Collins has the most to do as his daughter. As far as romantic comedies go, Stuck in Love is passable—the script doesn’t offer any particularly strong or funny moments, but the film plows forward to its conclusion without too many problems along the way. It does have its share of unrealistic moments, but those get shoved under the “romantic comedy, don’t ask too many questions” sign. The addition of material about writers is just about the only thing making the film feel different, and it culminates with a voice cameo by Stephen King. Stuck in Love will fill an evening, if that’s the kind of film you’re looking for.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I first watched Natural Born Killers on VHS two decades ago, given to me by a friend who thought it was quite the experience. He was right (for summers after, I’d refer to myself jokingly as “Natural Born Christian” whenever I shaved my head), and watching the film again today only highlights it. There isn’t much to the basic plot, as an abused couple goes on a crime rampage, are arrested, become unlikely folk heroes and then react to an attempt to turn them into TV stars during a live interview from the prison in which they’re held. But the way director Oliver Stone chooses to put together the film is special. Blending impressionistic techniques such as animation, double-cutting, various film stocks, repeated lines, colour shifts and tilted cameras (among others), Natural Born Killers aims to create a chaotic atmosphere and reach for bigger themes about violence and media amplification in American society. It still works remarkably well, largely due to solid performances and in-your-face direction. This was Woody Harrelson’s first turn as a quasi-villain, and it’s still creepily effective today. Meanwhile, Juliette Lewis is very good in a role very much in-line of her early persona role—and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually like that persona. Elsewhere in the movie, Rodney Dangerfield is brutally effective as the star of a demented expeditionary sitcom, while Robert Downey Jr. gets a small but memorable role as a ratings-obsessed TV personality. Natural Born Killer is noisy, confusing, exhilarating, depressing and sometimes even beautiful. It remains quite a viewing experience with a relevant message even more than twenty years after release. (Amusingly enough, the channel on which I watched the film at very low volume did not have fully working subtitles, adding to the messy chaos of the viewing experience.)
(On DVD, October 2016) Katherine Heigl as a neurotic shrew whose personal anxieties prevent her from finding true love? Well, that actually works—especially given that it describes maybe half of Heigl filmography so far. I’m not sure she got the screen persona that she wanted, but it doesn’t matter: It’s consistent and even a gnawing feeling that we’re supposed to dislike her works in 27 Dresses’ favour most of the time. As a freelance wedding planner who can’t manage to tie the knot, Heigl gets to go through the usual romantic comedy gamut of emotions regarding the male lead of the story, from exasperation to love. A rom-com in the classical mould, 27 Dresses can be confounding in its plot logic, lazy on its reliance on idiot plotting and not quite smooth in the way it lines up its set pieces, but it’s a generally harmless piece of fluff that can be watched easily and forgotten almost immediately. Judy Greer gets a few laughs as a deliberately promiscuous friend of the heroine, while James Marsden makes for a serviceable male protagonist. Some of the cynical commentary about the wedding industry is amusing, but would have been deployed to better effect in a darker kind of film. Much like the use that the film makes of the titular 27 dresses, this is a film that aims for the average rom-com and achieves it … leaving the full reactions to the viewers.