(On Cable TV, November 2016) Horror anthology Creepshow may be uneven and thirty-five years old by now, but it does have a few things still going for it. Among them is a charming throwback to fifties horror comics, along with the tongue-in-cheek, slightly-sadistic sense of humour that characterized it. Another would be seeing Stephen King hamming it up as a rural yokel gradually colonized by an alien plant. Yet another would be Leslie Nielsen is a rather serious role as a betrayed husband seeking revenge. Creepshow also notably adopts a number of comic book conventions decades before comic-book movies, under the cackling direction of horror legend George A. Romero. A very young (but not young-looking) Ed Harris pops up in a minor role, while Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau have more substantial roles in another segment. Finally, “They’re Creeping Up on You” cranks up the ick-factor to eleven for those who are bothered by cockroaches—you’ve been warned. Otherwise, well, it’s hit-and-miss. Neither the laughs nor the chills are always evenly balanced, and there’s a repetition of themes and effect even in five vignettes—at least two, and maybe even three, end on a note of “the dead rise for revenge!” Some of the special effects look dodgy (although this is more forgivable in a semi-comic context) and one suspects that had a similar film been made today, the direction would have been quite a bit more impressionistic. Still, Creepshow is not a bad grab bag thirty-five years later, and it does sustain viewing satisfaction until the end. As with most anthology movies, it’s perhaps best appreciated in small doses, a segment a night.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) It seems unfair to overly criticize a film like Cop Car. At its core, it’s nothing more than a simple low-budget film that tries for something specific and achieves it successfully. As two boys somewhere in rural Midwestern USA discover a seemingly abandoned cop car and start goofing with it (driving it on the back roads, playing with the equipment it contains), they barely realize what they’ve stumbled into. It gets much worse. As they discover a man tied up in the trunk and as the film intercuts with a crooked sheriff getting rid of a body, it’s clear to us (but not to them) how much trouble they’re into. Kevin Bacon isn’t bad, but doesn’t shine as the corrupt policeman. As a small-scale rural thriller, Cop Car sets up its elements and plays with them, steadily increasing the suspense until the end. There’s an intriguing mismatch between the crooked-cop thriller and the playful nature of the two boys having a grand day out (you don’t have to be a gun enthusiast to wince at the dangerous weapons handling shown here), up until the bullets start flying and they realize the danger they’re in. But for all of the low-budget charm that Cop Car can show, it’s not quite the film it could be. The plot is noticeably thin and the pacing even worse, leading to a film that feels too long even as it merely squeaks by 90 minutes. It also back-loads its story so that by the time everything happens in the last few minutes, it seems to end far too quickly to provide proper closure. While Cop Car ends up being a calling card for director Jon Watts (who’s moving on to no less than a new Spider-Man movie), it’s not quite good enough to reach viewers outside its chosen genre.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There’s something tailor-made for Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s brainy-and-attractive protagonist, a bored lifestyle writer who decides to take up war journalism in Afghanistan at the height of the American intervention over there. Before long, the pace of the job has transformed her into an adrenaline junkie, breaking off her relationship back home and leading her to taking more and more risks. This dramatic arc, coupled with the built-in absurdity of life in war-torn Afghanistan, makes for a first half that’s decently comic, renewing with the geo-sardonicism American comedy subgenre that reached its peak in 2005–2010. Fey is great as her character gradually evolves from bemused fish-out-of-water to grizzled war journalism veteran, and as the film keeps up the more comic aspect of its story. Margot Robbie also makes an impression as a mentor/rival of sorts, while Martin Freeman takes on a less sympathetic turn than usual. It’s very loosely based on true events, but the film wisely sticks to fiction more than reality when comes the time to deliver entertainment. Still, its last half gets progressively less amusing, to the point of dealing with kidnappings, deaths, maiming, betrayals and absolution. While the dramatic arc progression is understandable, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t end on the same kind of high notes on which it begins, taking away much of its impact. Too bad, because in many ways this is a good showcase for Fey’s brand of comedy, and a welcome reminder of the impact of the American intervention in Afghanistan—see it with the equally imperfect Rock the Kasbah for another perspective.
(On DVD, November 2016) As a frothy tropical comedy featuring intergenerational romance, Six Days Seven Nights almost exactly what it claims to be. As a young woman (Anne Heche) and an older man (Harrison Ford, up to his usual grumpy persona) are stranded on a tropical island, misadventures pile up until they include bad weather, plane crashes, pirates and tropical survival. Most of it is in good fun, with the added appeal of tropical scenery. The main plot works reasonably well, but I can’t help but feel that it’s sabotaged by the subplot, in which the partners of the lost couple indulge in adultery and ultimately dictate the disappointing ending of the film. (This is one of the few romantic comedies in which it’s understandable not to root for the lead couple to remain together, as mismatched as they are. I give them six months.) David Schwimmer is OK as the abandoned subplot fiancé, but pales in comparison to Jacqueline Obradors’ far more spirited performance in the same vicinity. Otherwise, veteran comedy director Ivan Reitman keeps things moving and if Six Days Seven Nights doesn’t rise up much above the usual, it’s done in a genre that’s more agreeable than most. (As long as you can forgive the ending, that is.)
(On TV, November 2016) What?, you say, Kevin Costner playing an idealized stoic male loner figure designed to make women swoon? Well, yes. Message in a Bottle, predictably adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, starts with a mystery (who is the man who would write such a heartbreaking letter and toss it off to sea in a bottle?) and gradually ends on the trail of a sensitive model of masculinity, still grieving over the loss of his wife in a picturesque eastern seaboard town. Cue the waterworks, cue the stirring music, cue the sage old man, cue the lies that lead to rifts, cue just about everything that such Nicholas Sparks-inspired movies have. It’s mechanistic and calculated and cynical and obvious and it still works in some fashion. It helps that the actors are good at what they do: Costner is Costner, obviously, but Robin Wright makes for a suitably bland heroine and Paul Newman shows up as a wizened old man. Throw in Ileana Douglas as spunky comic relief and Robbie Coltrane as a gruff boss and the clichés just write themselves into comforting lines. The audiences for this kind of movie are self-identified—the rest of us might as well not even try to comment.
(On DVD, November 2016) By the time sequels abandon the main cast and repeat the plot formula of their predecessor verbatim, it’s clear that the creativity has gone out of the series. To be fair, Home Alone 2 went through amazing contortions to repeat the first film’s structure, so it’s not as if Home Alone 3 is an outlier. Still, it starts again with a new kid, new antagonists (spies!) and leads to the familiar slapstick accumulation of elaborate traps vastly beyond our protagonist’s time and abilities. At least the traps don’t always feel as gratuitously violent as the second one, even though some material still skirts attempted murder. Home Alone 3 sort-of-works, but it does feel like a faded copy of the original, minus a bunch of the material that gave substance to the first film (and to a lesser extent, the second). This workmanlike film is most interesting at the edges of the cast list; a thirteen-year-old Scarlett Johansson briefly shows up as a bratty sister, while kids-movie director Raja Gosnell here makes his feature film debut. Otherwise, it is what it wants to be: a clone of the original Home Alone, except without Christmas, without memorable villains, and without the freshness of the original idea. I suspect that most copies of Home Alone 3 will be, like mine, sold in DVD collections as a bonus to its first two better predecessors. See it if you enjoy that kind of thing; otherwise don’t.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I won’t blame anyone for watching The Forest solely to see Nathalie Dormer playing twin sisters. After all, Dormer has had striking roles in TV shows such as Elementary and Game of Thrones, but her film career is only beginning and fans have to be happy with what they can get. The premise certainly does feel intriguing: Dormer plays an American woman searching for her sister, believed lost in a Japanese forest infamous for attracting suicidal people. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do much with this premise. There’s little moment-to-moment interest in watching The Forest laboriously go through the motion of supernatural horror, especially given how the film doesn’t fully exploit the cinematographic possibilities of its forest setting. By the time the film plays with hallucinations, abandoned buildings, ghostly presences, tragic back stories and such, it’s obvious that The Forest is going to be a big ball of nonsense. And as usual for such a middling horror film, the dark ending feels more annoying than anything else, depriving us of anything like satisfaction. Dormer herself is fine, but the role doesn’t really allow her to do much but look scared for a solid hour. Otherwise, the directing is uninspired, the ending falls flat and the entire film feels tedious, as is usually the case for horror movies theatrically released in January. See The Forest for Dormer if you must, but otherwise there isn’t much here even for horror fans.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I’ll be the first to admit that the biggest problem in watching Network forty years later is being unable to distinguish between what’s a portrait of the media landscape circa 1976 and what we’ve grown accustomed to in 2016. (And, wow, has 2016 broken through the bottom of the barrel in terms of public discourse.) While the visual representation of how a TV network operated in the mid-1970s has now acquired a certain fascination, much of the context surrounding the film is now difficult to pin down. What’s more timeless is the quality of the script by screenwriting legend Paddy Chayefsky, which sounds literate and clever and off-beat at once—there’s a subplot in particular about an affair between an ambitious young woman and a much older man that plays with a mixture of world-weariness and fourth-wall leaning. The rest of the film has other delights to offer, from impassioned populist speeches about “not taking it any more” that feels truer than ever in 2016, along with a provocative counter-speech about “meddling with the primal forces of nature”. I mean, just admire this line, which would never be featured in a modern blockbuster: “There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” Great performances abound from actors such as Faye Dunaway (completely unlikable), William Holden and Peter Finch, along with remarkable appearance by Ned Beatty and Robert Duvall. Watching Network, it’s clear that the fabric on which it is painted has changed in ways it predicted. What I’m wondering is where we’ll ever see something as prophetic and provocative about our own times.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) I’m nearly always willing to give spoofs a chance (well, except for the Seltzer/Freidberg stuff, which is just terrible no matter what), but while I gave cautiously favourable reviews to Marlon Wayans’ two A Haunted House spoofs, there’s no such joy to be found in his Fifty Shades of Black, a dull retelling of Fifty Shades of Gray (the movie, not the book) without much wit or humour. You may reasonably argue that it’s hard to do anything with that source material, but that’s not entirely true—Fifty Shades of Black’s best moments come when it questions the source material and gives more agency to the female protagonist. More along that vein (and something beyond simply complaining about the prose in the original book) could have done wonders to make the film better. As it now stands, however, Fifty Shades of Black has too little material to play with: By solely riffing on the original film and not bringing in more sources of inspiration, the film is reduced to an exasperating scene by scene walkthrough of the original, with a comedic approach that quickly becomes predictable. The two A Haunted House could at least vary their approach by switching from one source of inspiration to another, and thus impose some coherence to their approach rather than being subservient (if using that word is appropriate in this context) to the original. Even at barely more than 90 minutes, Fifty Shades of Black feels far too long. This being said, it’s sort of remarkable that neither Marlon Wayans nor Kali Hawk come across too badly as performers: Hawk in particular seems game to try anything in service of a laugh, while Wayans remains very likable as a comedian even given the lines he’s written for himself. It’s a shame that he doesn’t try to get better material.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Humour is subjective, and it doesn’t take much more than a movie attuned to a different kind of comedy to remind us of that. So it is that Hot Rod aims for a mixture of goofy surrealism, eighties-movies homage, Napoleon Dynamite-esque Midwest Pathetic Kitsch and underdog comedy played straight. It’s an exceptionally ironic film, and it’s not surprising if it doesn’t land most of its punches—does it even care if it doesn’t? On the other hand, it does own up to its kind of comedy, and doesn’t seem particularly apologetic if much of the audience doesn’t react well. Andy Samberg stars and contributes to the script along with his Lonely Island co-stars and the result is definitely theirs. Surprisingly enough, this film about an amateur stuntman does contain a surprising number of awe-inspiring stunts—dangerous pratfalls and failed attempts performed on camera in a way that suggests real danger and pain. White Hot Rod, as a whole, isn’t all that good or enjoyable, it does have a go-for-broke distinctiveness that almost makes it respectable. It may not be for everyone, but it clearly knows what it wants to be. For there to cult status is something that will belong to others to decide—a decade later, Hot Rod still gets mentioned once in a while, although it remains unclear whether it has picked up much of a following beyond its initial audience.
(On DVD, November 2016) The most interesting thing about Home Alone 2 is probably the elaborate fashion through which it seeks to integrate the distinctive elements of the first film into a new framework that doesn’t necessarily call for it. Rather than being left home alone during Christmas, our young protagonist ends up alone in New York while his family is in Florida. So far so good, except that the sequel then goes through shameless hoops in order to copy is own prequel. Bring back the villains as escaped convict; check. Befriend an elderly woman as mirror to the elderly man of the first film; check. Set the third act in a townhouse under renovation so that elaborate traps can be deployed; check. Once again, the script also goes through entertaining contortions to justify its own premise (that Kevin would once again be left alone, despite the family trying to avoid such a thing happening again). Setting the action in New York isn’t such a bad idea—it allows for some interesting scenery, a distinctive first-half feel, hotel hijinks and a cameo by future president Donald Trump (wait, did I really write this? Oh my … it’s sinking in.) But the slapstick third act feels far less interesting this time around—not only has it been already done before, but the traps seem far more needlessly violent than in the previous film, and there’s a fair case to be made about attempted murder on some of them. Macaulay Culkin once again holds much of the film together, with Chris Columbus delivering more or less the same film for the second time. The result is of a pair with the first film—what you think of the first will be what you think of the second, so closely do they align.
(On Blu-ray, November 2016) I can certainly see why a lot of people would not like Hardcore Henry. It is, after all, a quasi-literal film transcription of a first-person shooter videogame, with much of the nonsense usually associated with that kind of entertainment: Similar plots, excessive violence, deemphasized characters, and blatant appeals to teenagers. The first-person perspective sustained over more than 90 minutes is dizzying, the image quality of the Go-Pro cameras isn’t always that great and the thin story intentionally feels like a string of cut-scenes run in-between action set pieces. In other words, while there may not have been a lot of first-person action movies lately, Hardcore Henry still does feel intensely familiar. This being said: I’m a sucker for novelty, and there’s a lot that I actually like in the movie, even while acknowledging its faults. It’s bringing a new (ish) grammar to movies, imposed by the limitations of its chosen format, and it’s interesting to see the film go through elaborate hoops (Cybernetic enhancements! Missing voice box! Clones!) to justify familiar videogame conventions. The action sequences are interesting to watch, even though the first-person perspective and low-grade cameras do limit their effectiveness. The Moscow setting strikes a nice balance between familiarity and estrangement. The film does brim with moment-to-moment invention from writer/director Ilya Naishuller, especially when the main character has to emote without the use of a face or a voice. The black humour isn’t always successful (and often feel juvenile), but it does help enliven what could have been a far more gruelling experience. It almost goes without saying that thanks to the first-person perspective, Hardcore Henry is probably best appreciated on a small screen as so not to trigger motion sickness. It won’t be for everyone … but few movies are.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I still can’t decide whether The Boy’s twist is ludicrous or lame. As horror movies go, it decidedly feels limp: As a young American comes to England to be a live-in nanny, she discovers that she’s been asked to care for … a porcelain doll. Except that the porcelain doll seems to move whenever she’s not looking. Any half-wit can propose the explanation with which the film comes up far too late; but the twist doesn’t excuse the rather lifeless way it exploits that development. Pretty much everything else about the film is strictly routine, from the growing suspicions of the heroine to the ominous vibes of the hunky visitor to the deluded masters of the house. It’s bland and boring and the predictable twist doesn’t do much to enliven things up when it’s followed by a sequence that’s been done (often better) in other slasher movies. There isn’t much to say about The Boy because there isn’t much in The Boy. Lauren Cohan and Rupert Evans are both unremarkable in the lead roles, and the same also goes for director William Brent Bell—the best he can manage are some eerie shots of a Victorian house … and most of the credit there goes to the set dressers anyway. Done according to the current standard of the horror genre but ultimately too dull to matter, The Boy is almost instantly forgettable.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Blending Christmas themes with horror is not exactly an innovation … but it’s still rare enough to be noteworthy. In Krampus, a holiday comedy is slowly submerged in darkness as Santa’s less-savoury counterpart comes to teach an ungrateful family some harsh lessons. Written and directed by Michael Dougherty (whose decent Trick ’r Treat remains a bit of a cult favourite), Krampus is at its best when it transforms Christmas iconography into horror. It does have a few effective moments, especially as the family gradually sees itself isolated and under siege as the rest of the world disappears and their house won’t protect them. Still, for all of its B-movie sadistic intentions, Krampus doesn’t quite work as well as it should. Part of it has to do with lack of focus: all a multiplicity of horrors rain down on the characters, it’s hard to see how they all fit together—and they don’t. Part of it also has to do with the divided loyalties that the audience has for the characters: Once most of them are set up as being unlikable, it’s hard to muster up any interest in seeing them survive. By the time the ending rewinds, the film ends up closer to a shrug than to lasting dread: for all of its holiday nastiness, Krampus ends up being more restrained and unremarkable than should have been.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) There’s an amazingly thin line between emotional effectiveness and straight-up manipulation, and If I Stay kept hopping around that line far too often to my liking. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches, beginning with a terrible car crash and then gradually killing off the protagonist’s family member one by one. The supernatural aspect of the film allows the protagonist to run around a hospital in-between flashbacks and news of her family’s extinction as she decides to stay or go in the afterlife. If that sounds like a lot of melodrama, then further brace yourselves, because If I Stay is shameless in the way it creates more romantic drama out of nowhere and blends everything with an artificial dilemma for our college-bound over-coddled heroine. Not being from a musical background, I kept changing my mind on whether the film’s idealistic focus on music was endearing or pretentious. (I settled on endearing, but it was a challenge at time.) Chloe Moretz is not bad as the main character, although the film’s strongest scenes are the ensemble sequences in which the family comes together. The film really wants viewers to cry and doesn’t mess around during its three-ring climax—if grandpa’s speech doesn’t get you, then the boyfriend’s song or the protagonist’s decision will. If I Stay is semi-effective in that it sometimes works, but the manipulation is obvious and is likely to make some members of the audience resent the film. But so it goes for romantic dramas—if you won’t like the ride, don’t buy the ticket.