(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There’s something to be said about screen personas, and one of the most amazing aspect of reading about the development of Daddy’s Home after watching the film is finding out the pairs of actors once considered for the two main roles of the film and how drastically they would have changed the film. On-screen, Will Ferrell has no problem becoming the semi-naïf good-natured dad, while Mark Wahlberg is immediately credible as a blue-collar macho type. Seeing them square off to gain their affection of kids is almost immediately funny, and it doesn’t take much for their personas to clash. Now trying to imagine Vince Vaughn instead of Wahlberg, or Ferrell as the macho guy facing against Ed Helms suggest entirely new movies. Now, the corollary about the power of typecasting is the accompanying caveat that much of Daddy’s Home script is almost disposable. Stringing along half a dozen recurring gags, the film pretty much goes through the expected motions, leaving just enough time to showcase the actors doing what they do best. Points are awarded for a conclusion that leaves everyone happy, and a coda that even manages an ironic flip of the situation. While Daddy’s Home doesn’t have many surprises, it does execute what it wants to say reasonably well, and makes Ferrell far more tolerable than in many other movies.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2016) I have watched Blade Runner at least once before, but it was a long time ago and I can’t guarantee that it was in one single sitting. It was probably in the mid-nineties, at a time when I was diving deep into nerd culture and the film was de rigueur viewing—the only accepted conclusion to watching the film was to brand it an undeniable classic. Actually sitting down to watch its Final Cut in one gulp twenty years later, however, I find myself somewhat more reserved. Oh, it’s still a good film, especially when measured against the Science Fiction movies of that time: It’s considerably more mature, refined and ambiguous. From today’s perspective, however, it’s not quite as fresh. There are (especially on Blu Ray) annoying differences between the image quality of the shots, sometimes grainy, sometimes blurred. The special effects are limited and used sparingly (even often literally repeated), the themes have been reused almost endlessly since then, and the pacing is notably slack—by the time the classic ending came by, I was surprised at how little had happened. This isn’t to take away from its achievement, but to put it in context as a tremendously influential film. While the vision of a multicultural rain-soaked neon-lit Los Angeles was, at the time, unlike anything else, it crossed over to cliché roughly twenty-five years ago. It’s a testimony to director Ridley Scott, as well as to actors Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer that the film still holds up today even after inspiring so many other works. In a way, the fact that we can’t watch Blade Runner in the same way today than in 1982 proves how much of a classic it is. But as a film, it’s not perfect—so mark me down as nominally interested in the idea of next year’s sequel.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, November 2016) I remember watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket as a teenager in the early nineties, on VHS in the basement of a friend’s house—and at the time, the conclusion of the training sequence was gory enough to upset me quite a bit. I caught the second half of the film years later, which didn’t feel as unfulfilling as it should considering the difference between the two chunks of the film. So it’s a bit of a reunion between two or three different periods to watch the film from beginning to end more than twenty years later. It also feels very interesting to watch it (by happenstance) two days after seeing Platoon. While Platoon is a more cohesive portrait of the soldier’s experience on the ground, Full Metal Jacket does offer stronger individual moments. It’s cynical about war in slightly different ways, and clearly shows director Stanley Kubrick’s mastery of craft. This comes at the expense of a stronger plot and/or a convincing portrayal of Vietnam itself—despite the heroic efforts of the production crew, the truth is that nearly everything was shot in England (!!!), and that the scenery usually associated with the Vietnam era is not to be found in the film. (On the other hand, depiction of urban warfare in Vietnam are rare and to be appreciated as a change from an endless time spent in the jungle.) Strong moments from the film include vivid training sequences, barracks dynamics, and a sustained urban warfare sequence. It does not amount to a cohesive film, but the highs are high and the lows are absent. It’s an essential war movie … but I’ll acknowledge my earlier self by stating that sensitive audiences should brace themselves.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) I am really not a fan of home-invasion thrillers, and even less of horror movies featuring a ridiculously overpowered serial killer. Imagine my reaction upon finding out that Hush, on paper, is nothing more than a gimmicky take on the same old tired idea: A deaf woman fighting against a murderous psychopath in a house lost in the woods. But there’s something to be said about intent. There’s no trying to glorify the killer here, and it’s clear that the heroine is the one we’re cheering for. Even better is the film’s execution: Clocking in at a lean 87 minutes, Hush seldom wastes a moment in milking all possible suspense out of its dramatic premise. The cat-and-mouse game between disabled heroine and psycho killer is well done, and gives the impression of an authentic battle rather than an arbitrary string of showpieces. Much care has been spent in crafting the aural atmosphere of the story, the audio perspective of the film shifting between the deaf woman’s perception and a more objective recording of what’s happening. (If you’re watching at home late at night, though, watch out for the VERY LOUD AND PROLONGED alarm noises that happen twice in the movie.) After Absentia and Oculus, writer/director Mike Flanagan is building a filmography of striking horror movies, and Hush is the best of them so far. Kate Siegel not only turns in a good performance in a pivotal role, but also co-wrote the screenplay with husband Flanagan. Hush is a small triumph of execution, filled with thrilling set pieces and holding it all together until the predictable but satisfying end. When a slasher film can convince even a skeptic like me that it’s worth a look, then it’s a mission accomplished.
(On Blu-ray, November 2016) I think I expected just a bit more from The Gift than I got. Which isn’t necessarily a knock against the film: Written and directed by Joel Edgerton (who also holds a pivotal role in the film), The Gift is an understated psychological thriller than eventually deals with some very primal emotions on its way to a devastating conclusion. It’s a powerful anti-bullying statement (you never know what your victims will become … or how much you’ll have to lose to their revenge), an uncomfortable suspense film and an unsettling drama as well. It plays games with our perception of the characters, not to mention exploiting Jason Bateman’s screen persona very effectively. (Bateman has often played the everyday hero, but many of his performances have had a streak of meanness to them, and The Gift plays up that looming menace exceptionally well.) Edgerton himself plays his character well, even when he’s written himself as an ineffectual loser. Sadly, Rebecca Hall doesn’t have much to do here—her persona as a brainy sophisticated woman is custom-made to make her one of my favourite actresses, but doesn’t always find appropriate scripts. But the biggest issue against The Gift may also be one of its best assets: a relatively slow forward rhythm that leaves plenty of time for uneasiness, dread and boredom. It’s a finely controlled film, but it’s also a bit long and often underwhelming along the way … even though the conclusion does pack a punch. It will work best with audiences who don’t necessarily expect a thrill a minute, and who enjoy the often uncomfortable situations that it presents.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) Is it still a sleeper if everyone who talks about a film says it’s a sleeper? I wasn’t planning on watching Sing Street, but the word on the web was nearly unanimous: It’s a great little movie! You’ll never expect it! Sleeper hit of the year! High praise, overwhelming hype, low expectations: Whatever you call it, Sing Street is, indeed, a really good film that’s flying under the radar of a lot of people. It doesn’t start promisingly, mind you: Set in Dublin during the recession of the 1980s, Sing Street begins as financial and marital difficulties force a couple to send their son to a cheaper school. Humiliation is soon added to our protagonist’s troubles, but he refuses to let himself down. With the intention of impressing a girl, he soon starts a band and ransacks the pop culture of the time for inspiration. From unpromising beginnings, Sing Street soon acquires a comfortable cruising speed as the band works well together and leads to bigger and bigger things. Remarkably enough, you can see the evolution of the fictional band as they discover and integrate various sounds in their style. The soundtrack is very good, both for the licensed songs (Motörhead! The Clash! Robin Scott!) and for the original ones. “Drive it Like You Stole it,” in particular, is as good as any pop song can be—and it underscores the film’s best sequence as well. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is very likable in the main role, with Lucy Boynton playing a multilayered love interest. Writer/director John Carney knows what he’s doing and delivers a conventional but well-executed film. I have a few quibbles abound the ending, which takes place on an oneiric escape level that’s not quite satisfying, but by that time Sing Street has left its positive impact: It’s a charming film, a decent spiritual successor to The Commitments, and the kind of small discovery that you recommend to friends for years to come.
(On TV, November 2016) There have been many great movies about Vietnam, but for all of the respect I (and others) have for Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter or Full Metal Jacket, I think that Platoon is better than all of them in giving us a cohesive soldier’s view of the conflict, without necessarily building up to a larger metaphorical point. (Apocalypse Now happens in parallel with Vietnam, The Deer Hunter is about the scars it left and Full Metal Jacket is a collection of great sequences with a threadbare link between them.) Oliver Stone writes and directs from his own experiences, and the result has an authenticity that’s hard to shake off. From the first few moments when our protagonist (Charlie Sheen, baby-faced, sympathetic and humble) steps on the ground and sees the haunted veterans, it’s obvious that this is going to be a wart-and-all portrayal of the conflict. By the time our protagonist hooks up with the local drug users, we’re clearly far from pro-war propaganda pieces. Platoon is also canny in how it sets up a conflict between two senior soldiers (one, played by a suitably intense Willem Defoe, trying to be civilized about an uncivilized situation, and the other, played with even more intensity by Tom Berenger, surrendering to the madness) that compel our protagonist to choose a camp. Terrifying combat sequences all build up to a natural conclusion to our viewpoint character’s war experience. Lauded upon release, Platoon is no less effective thirty years later—largely because it sticks close to its own authenticity and doesn’t try to make more than what’s already a significant point about the combat experience.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There shouldn’t be a thin line between harrowing and boring, but The Finest Hours certainly does its damnedest to find one. From the first dull moments presenting a glossy vision of wholesome 1950s America (based on a true story), it’s obvious that this film is aimed at a particular audience, nostalgic for a simpler time when technology didn’t get in the way of pure determined heroism. The story of how a plucky under-equipped Coast Guard crew managed to rescue thirty-some sailors after their ship was split apart by a winter storm, The Finest Hours hits is best moments in its spectacular depiction of the catastrophe, of the almost impossible odds their rescuers faced and the numerous moments of action faced by the protagonists. (Chris Pine is also very good as the hero of the film.) Unfortunately, much of this excitement is quickly smothered by syrupy interludes that frame the action in a too-cute depiction of the 1950s American East Coast, in-between extended romantic drama, quickly extinguished interpersonal conflict and other dull moments. The Finest Hours is remarkably boring for a film that shows a merchant ship being ripped in half, and that’s the kind of impression that doesn’t make for a positive review. I’m sure that there is an audience for this film, and that audience looks a lot like one that goes for films that play on AMC on November 11. But for people who fall outside that demographic… The Finest Hours can be a long sit.
(On TV, November 2016) If I was in a jocular mood, I’d probably use Girl with a Pearl Earring as an excuse for a rant on the sorry state of Hollywood creativity: Not only are they adapting novels, TV Shows, videogames, now they’re even adapting paintings, for goodness’ sake! But it’s hard to be in anything but a coma after watching the film, which delves deep into the minutia of a 17th century Dutch household as it imagines the circumstances leading to Vermeer’s eponymous painting. Scarlett Johansson stars as the eponymous girl, while Colin Firth gets a smile or two as the long-haired romantic incarnation of the painter. Much of the rest is either domestic infighting, or a half-hearted romantic triangle. There are, to be sure, a few things worth mentioning about the film: The cinematography plays with the colour scheme of the film to reflect various Vermeer paintings, and Johansson does bear a passing resemblance to the painting itself. But much of it feels dull and far too long. I suspect that part of my lack of appreciation for the film has to do with the film’s presentation: For some reason, the version I watched on TV (on a channel that usually does its best despite commercial breaks) had muddy colors, bad compression artifacts and (most unexplainably) a 4:3 aspect ratio for a film shot in 2.35:1. Still, no amount of presentation will fix the interminable pacing of the story, so I don’t expect to revisit Girl with a Pearl Earring anytime soon.
(In French, Video on Demand, November 2016) I spent too much time thinking about the boiled frog theory during the latter half of the spectacularly misguided The Nutcracker in 3D. Anyone going into this film from the title alone is going to have a weird time. The first few minutes do seem to set the tone for a visually inventive remake of the classic ballet. But then, the film gradually turns to its own preoccupations, until the moment, roughly midway through, where we find ourselves in the middle of a popular uprising within a dystopian vision of an east-European country, with rats as Nazi surrogates and big-scale urban battles heating up. That’s roughly the point where the frog wakes up from the gradual boil and asks itself “how did I end up here?” That feeling will be echoed by plenty of viewers asking themselves how an Orwellian insurrection fantasy ended up springing from The Nutcracker. There’s plenty of other weird stuff as well (a small comic role for Albert Einstein, a Freud cameo, some ugly character design, and so on) but the sheer misguided nature of this Nutcracker is remarkable, perhaps even more so considering that the film had a significant budget, known actors (Elle Fanning, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, etc.), can’t miss source material and was presented in 3D. At least there’s no question whose fault is it, given writer/producer/director Andrei Konchalovsky. It’s certainly interesting in its deliberate distancing from the original, but if you want anything like a classical take on The Nutcracker … even the Barbie animated version feels more appropriate.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) Much has been written about how 10 Cloverfield Lane started life as a small bunker thriller named Valencia (in fact, hilariously enough, on the film’s first day of availability on Netflix Canada, the only way to find it was to search for “Valencia”), only to be radically altered by the addition of a special-effects-heavy ending to tie it to the so-called “Cloverfield” mythos. That certainly explains the weird change of pace toward the end and the feeling that the result doesn’t entirely belong together. Still, there’s a lot to like in the Valencia part of 10 Cloverfield Lane, as a small-scale thriller located in a confined space, with three characters that are only too willing to inflict harm on each other. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fine as a young woman on the run who wakes up from a car accident to find herself stuck in a bunker, but John Goodman is impressive as the bunker’s owner, hovering at the edge of sanity with a dangerous streak of aggression. Director Dan Tratchenberg knows how to milk suspense out of a confined environment, and clearly establishes the setting before using it to good effect. (I’ll be honest: That bunker is so nice that I wouldn’t mind spending a few days in there.) The suspense is handled well, and the film plays nicely with unanswered questions for those who don’t know where it’s going. Still, the ending does stick out quite a bit, and I really don’t care if or how or why this film relates to 2009’s Cloverfield. “Anthology series” seems promising, but it would work better if they didn’t play games with the audience. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded just getting Valencia.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I had managed to miss this film from the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger period, but after finally watching Kindergarten Cop I’m not sure it was much of a loss. As a hybrid between family-friendly comedy and action thriller, it falls uneasily between two chairs: It doesn’t tone town its PG-13 action sequences (meaning that you’ll see people getting shot, even if with only a modest amount of blood), and yet spends a lot of time on the comedic section of its story, with plenty of easy gags about a bulky policeman confronting a group of small children. It doesn’t help that much of the film feels unpleasant, focusing on child endangerment, making so-called jokes about divorce and abandonment, using a script that takes plot contrivances to an entirely new level within a predictable structure. What saves the movie are largely the performances, with Schwarzenegger in fine form as he goes from action to comedy. (He even sports a stylish bead in the film’s first sequence.) In retrospect, it looks as if Kindergarten Cop was a prototype for an entire sub-genre of movies featuring action heroes in kid-friendly movies. The Pacifier, The Spy next Door, The Tooth Fairy … all stem from the same core idea of expanding an action persona to a wider audience. None have worked perfectly yet, largely for the same reasons why Kindergarten Cop feels incoherent most of the time: It’s not easy to pander both to the demands of the action fans and the family-entertainment crowd at once—the slightest hint of violence makes the film unsuitable for younger viewers even despite the promises of the premise.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) While Green Room suffers from a slight case of over-hype, it’s not a fatal one. I’d been waiting a while, like many others, for a follow-up to writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed Blue Ruin, and Green Room does have a lot of what made the first film so interesting: sharply observed details, a respectful look at the lower rungs of society and an often-upsetting use of realistic violence. As a punk band gets embroiled in the dirty dealings of a neo-Nazi club in the middle of nowhere, the stakes quickly get deadly as they are locked in the green room and their opponents plan what to do with them. As a genre exercise, Green Room is well accomplished: our heroes are inside, the enemies are outside and there’s no help around. Violent episodes punctuate the film, resulting in a dwindling cast and ever-more inventive story beats. It ends satisfactorily enough, even though the film doesn’t revolutionize anything. Anton Yelchin stars as the headliner of the punk band. Against him, Patrick Stewart is simply chilling as a neo-Nazi leader. Meanwhile, it’s always interesting to see Alia Shawkat have a good role for herself. Still, the star remains Saulnier, who moves his chessboard pieces with cleverness and cranks up a decent amount of suspense when it counts. Now that he has created even more anticipation for himself, what will his next movie bring?
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) Bombastic director Michael Bay tackles real-life military drama in 13 Hours and the overall impression is a surprising “gee, how dull”. Executed as a paean to mercenaries in a bizarre display of patriotism for non-soldiers, this film purports to show what happened in Benghazi, further contributing to the “every American military disaster is a triumphant Hollywood movie in the making” subgenre. In theory, a strong visual director like Bay would be a great choice for presenting the battle of Benghazi in an engaging fashion. In execution, though, it takes a very long time for the movie to show any kind of visual flair, and those swooping drone shots of a battlefield aren’t used as often as they should. The geography of the events isn’t always clear despite efforts to make it so, while the largely undistinguishable bearded men acting as heroes seldom get a chance to express their individuality. It doesn’t help that the script often veers into cartoonish antagonism: Never mind the hordes of faceless foreign attackers—I’m more annoyed by the CIA chief barking at the protagonists like a character who will later repent for his shortsightedness. Working from a fact-based script seemingly hampers Bay, who can’t let loose with his usual brand of bigger-than-life explosions and braggadocio. I’m not a fan of 13 Hours, and I’m not a fan in a more dismissive way than for his awful Transformer movies—13 Hours don’t show enough ambition, enough distinctiveness, and enough moment-to-moment interest. It is, in other words, a dull movie and it’s been a long time since Bay did a dull movie. The contractors who fought in Benghazi would deserve better.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Anyone wishing for a distaff counterpart to 2014’s That Awkward Moment will be fulfilled by How to be Single … although one wonders if anyone else will be. Squarely set in the “ensemble romantic comedy set in New York and featuring up-and-coming actors” sub-genre, How to be Single incoherently examines the life of young singles in contemporary NYC, going for comic set pieces, an uplifting ending, actors using their charm to salvage a subpar script and other familiar elements. Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Alison Brie and Leslie Mann are the main characters, even though they get a lot of help from supporting players. The third act is a quasi-refreshing blend of relationships cut short, especially for the nominal main character who decides to go hiking rather than settle for unsatisfactory relationships. The film may or may not try to subvert the convention of romantic comedy, but it’s not too clear whether it wants to, or succumbs to expediency in order to wrap things up. It does have a few laughs; Rebel Wilson gets her share by playing essentially the same character as in the Pitch Perfect series, while Jason Mantzoukas makes a stronger impression than his limited screen time would suggest. Otherwise, it’s a mostly unremarkable film—funny while it plays, forgettable when it ends and not irritating enough to earn a bad review. At least the lead actresses get a paycheck, solidify their persona, prove that they can carry a movie and then move on to the next thing. It could have been worse.