(On Cable TV, November 2016) When true inspiring stories go through the screen-writing process, the result is nearly always something like Eddie the Eagle. Someone’s life reduced to a three-act formula, selectively manipulating history, creating characters and manufacturing Significant Moments so that audiences don’t have to contend with the messy reality. Yes, there was an “Eddie the Eagle” who, against most odds, competed in long-jump skiing during the Calgary Olympics. The rest is pretty much fiction … but entertaining fiction. As a not-particularly-gifted but determined young man, Eddie Edwards discovers ski jumping at a time when the British presence in the sport is non-existent. After gruelling training and qualification jumps, Eddie goes to the Olympics where his determination become far more remarkable than his performances. The meat of the film is in the training sequences, as a disgraced American ski jumper (Hugh Jackman, likable and effective in a wholly fiction role) takes Eddie (Taron Egerton, not bad as the less-than-glamorous hero) under his wing and makes a contender out of him. Eddie the Eagle is assembled, block-by-block, according to a common underdog sports-drama formula. It’s generally well done, with moments of comedy that make the film feel quite a bit fresher than it should be. It’s also a close look at an unusual sport, and among Eddie the Eagle’s biggest achievements are half a dozen ways to make the jumps look thrilling. While the result is disposable entertainment, it works well enough.
(First attempt, Video on-demand, August 2015) My wife and I paid for this video on-demand movie, stuck through its first dreary fifteen minutes, then gave up: The movie apparently starts three times, but without any kind of compelling narrative hook or moment-to-moment narrative rhythm. We never went back to the film. Child 44 got horrible reviews from the film-critic community, and I can understand why: Even months later, I’m not exactly in any hurry to go back and see what we missed.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Re-watching Child 44 and sticking to it until the end did it absolutely no favours. It’s still an unimaginably dull movie. Viewers suffocate under the weight of the Soviet regime, and the movie does its best to make the suffering last as long as possible with subplots that go nowhere, glacial pacing, uninteresting characters and a direction that does its best to kill whatever tension, suspense or interest that the movie may hold. Even for a historical thriller in which our disgraced heroes track down a detestable child murderer, Child 44 is unbelievably boring. The top-notch cast (Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnerman, Vincent Cassel, etc.) isn’t given anything interesting to do or to say. There is potential in the premise of the film, and sometimes in the picture it shows—but that potential does not extend to anything approaching entertainment or viewing pleasure—the film takes forever to start, take forever to build and forever to end. I’ve seen far worse movies this year, but even the bad one still had more entertainment value than Child 44. Complete dud.
(In French, On TV, November 2016) I’ve never been a teenage girl, so allow me some slack when I admit that Thirteen left me cold. The story of how a good girl goes bad, this film further pushed my exasperation buttons by looking like a pseudo-realistic take on a mundane topic. Hampered by a naturalistic approach, a wayward camera and issues that wouldn’t be out of place in a preachy movie-of-the-week, Thirteen feels instantly forgettable the moment you’re not part of its target audience. Albeit respectable in the way it portrays the Los Angeles teen experience in unadulterated realism and a refreshing lack of sentimentality (apparently reflecting a number of real-life experience for the film’s creative crew), Thirteen is the kind of film meant to grate on nerves and leave viewers unsettled. Writer/director Catherine Hardwicke’s grainy super-16mm approach is not meant for visual beauty, even though the film does play tricks with colour and close-quarters shooting. (It does keep a neat trick in reserve for one long uninterrupted shot midway through.) I gather that there is an audience for Thirteen—so I’ll opt out of any further commentary and suggest that audiences for this film will self-identify.
(Video on Demand, November 2016) Being a mother has always been hard, but it’s even more impossible today given the weight of expectations that society place upon them. Be a good mom, a caring wife, a valued member of the community, etc. all at once! Bad Moms takes on a premise of “what if one of them suddenly stopped caring?” Freed from expectations, a husband or even the ability to care, our protagonist (Mila Kunis, decently funny but arguably not frumpy enough) allies herself with two other moms and goes on a rampage of indulgence. It’s sometimes very funny (the highlight sequence is a raucous grocery store mayhem to the tune of Icona Pop’s “I Love it”), sometimes a bit annoying (don’t get me started on the clownish Bad Dads of the film) and usually at the limits of believability. Unfortunately, the last act of the film is hampered by a sudden excess of sentimentality, the unsatisfactory resolution of a few romantic plotlines and a general lowering of energy. But when it works, it’s not bad—Kunis is often overshadowed by Kirsten Bell as a mousy bad mom, and especially Kathryn Hahn as an uninhibited divorcee. (Further adding to Hahn’s deviant screen persona.) While Bad Moms doesn’t quite take advantage of its own opportunities, it feels grounded in some kind of current reality, and does hit a number of high notes on its way to a middling conclusion. Plus: Social topical relevancy alongside the cheap intoxication jokes.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) As I slowly digest the results of the 2016 American Presidential election (albeit not without a few gastric refluxes along the way), I thought that a fictional take on the 1992 Clinton campaign would soothe my nerves. Alas, no such luck: After the sheer weirdness of 2016, Primary Colors seems positively sedate even in its stew of political corruption, adultery, dirty tricks and dark secrets. People in 1998 still obviously cared about moral flaws, which is more than seems to be the case in these dark days of November 2016. Adapted from a roman à clé penned as “Anonymous” by political journalist Joe Klein, Primary Colors purports to talk about the Clinton campaign, albeit with many details scrubbed and others pushed well past the point of fiction. John Travolta shows up with a full-on Bill Clinton impersonation, even though there isn’t as clear a Hillary analogue in Emma Thompson’s character. The protagonist of the story is a young political operative who (as with seemingly every political operative drama since, from The Ides of March to Knife Fight to Our Brand is Crisis) has a crisis of conscience after discovering his candidate’s darkest secret. It’s handled decently enough, with twists and turns that justify the fiction moniker. Characters and actors of note are Kathy Bates as an unexpectedly idealistic battle-axe, Larry Hagman as a veteran politician, Billy Bob Thornton as a redneck strategist (compare his character with the one he plays in Our Brand is Crisis) and Adrian Lester as the overshadowed protagonist … among many other notable names in smaller performances. As a fictionalized look in the primary campaign process, Primary Colors is not bad—and even after nearly twenty years remains just as interesting. But it may not be as effective right now, as I look at the headlines and wonder when we veered off in this absurd alternate reality. Hopefully it’ll look a bit wilder in four years.
(In French, On TV, November 2016) For a French-Canadian cinephile, there’s something both familiar and slightly exotic to La Haine, given how similar it is to American ghetto movies … while taking place entirely in French, or at least a lowbrow European version of it (thanks for subtitles!) An early film from Matthieu Kassowitz featuring Vincent Cassel, La Haine is a no-budget cry from the heart detailing a fateful day in the life of three disaffected Parisian teenagers as racial tensions surround them. Things go ugly quickly, as they are wont to do in this kind of film. Shot in stark black-and-white and featuring an even harsher punk soundtrack, La Haine is about urban alienation and it is not meant to be pretty. (There’s even a scene in which our three uncouth protagonist crash a sophisticated art show … and it doesn’t turn out well.) It’s not meant to be a pleasant or enjoyable film—more akin to a mirror showing back imperfections without comforting lies. Intriguingly seen paired with similar American inner-ghetto films, La Haine remains a striking document of a French social problem that has never quite gone away since then.
(On DVD, November 2016) I had watched bits and pieces of Home Alone over the years, but never the whole film until now. What’s most interesting about its first few minutes is the relentlessness through which John Hughes’ script justifies its hair-raising premise: What if a kid was, indeed, left home alone over the holidays? What would it take (a large family, strife, imperfect communications, accidents) for it to happen, and for the family to be unable to come back? Home Alone virtually backflips in an attempt to make its premise seem plausible. Then it’s on to the fun and games of a kid outwitting burglars with subterfuge and too-clever traps—like a clock, the film winds up over most of its second act, then lets loose over the third one. Macaulay Culkin may not have had much of a career after the first two Home Alone movies, but he is a pivotal part of this one, with his character’s good-hearted innocence fuelling most of the first and second acts. The traps do get to be excessive toward the end, but that’s the kind of thing to be forgiven if the entire film can stand a chance. Otherwise, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern make for capable antagonists, and Catherine O’Hara brings a bit of honest motherly sentiment to the slapstick. While I’m not entirely convinced that Home Alone is a Christmas movie rather than a movie set during Christmas, it’s a decent comedy despite a few first-half lulls, and director Chris Columbus makes an impressive debut choreographing the mayhem. Call it a semi-classic for a reason.
(In French, On TV, November 2016) I’m writing this a few days after the close of the 2016 American presidential election, in a haze where I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s not necessarily the best time to tackle The Dead Zone, or maybe exactly the right time. Here, an unassuming teacher gains the power to foretell the future and see the past, leading to a complicated life and terrifying visions of what would happen if a local loon became president. Best time or worst time? I’ll tell you in four years. Until then, there’s an impossibly young Christopher Walken’s strangely compelling performance to admire and Martin Sheen as an unhinged politician that contrasts with his latter President Barlett. I’ve read the Stephen King novel too long ago to be specific about the details, but The Dead Zone seems to play loose with the details of the original story, which is not necessarily a bad thing. While writer/director David Cronenberg’s film can hit a few rough patches at times, with ambitions exceeding the means at its disposal, The Dead Zone remains engrossing throughout … and suddenly seems like a newly relevant film at a time when we’re grasping at any attempt to predict the future.
(On DVD, November 2016) Though largely forgotten nearly twenty years later, The Postman does have a few things going for it. It’s a Kevin Costner-directed movie featuring Costner in his classic stoic persona. It tackles not just the post-apocalypse, but the reconstruction of civilization. It (very loosely) adapts a novel by David Brin, an author I quite like. It is, by nature, fundamentally optimistic about humanity, which is not necessarily something that is expressed all that often in the post-apocalyptic genre. It features some good landscapes from the American northwest, further highlighting similarities with Costner’s western oeuvre such as Dances with Wolves and Open Range. The script isn’t too bad, wrestling a complex subject matter (and often wild source novel) into a relatively enjoyable film. Still, it’s not without its own problems. The most obvious would be the lack of concision in the result, and the overdone sentimentality. The Postman would have been perceptibly better had it been shorter and a bit less overbearing in its mawkishness. Removing some of the slow motion and toning down the insistent score would have helped in making the result palatable to a wider, perhaps more jaded audience. Streamlining the script would also have helped—the final result doesn’t benefit from a lot of repetitiveness and overly-explained context. I’m not overly bothered by the Americano-centrism of the symbolism in what is after all an American movie, but some of the imagery can feel a bit fetishistic to non-Americans. (Woo, post office!) Still, there are a few good moments in The Postman, and the result still feels fresh among other post-apocalyptic Science Fiction films. Even if imperfect, it’s quite a bit better than the crucial consensus seemed to be at the time.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) I really thought I’d like Bulworth more than I did. As a look in the life of an American politician, it’s not too bad: we get a feel for the trade-offs, the deals, the drudgery of the work. It’s even promising when it becomes obvious that the lead character has decided to give it all up and hires an assassin to take himself out. But then Bulworth decides to become heavily didactic, has its character raps through a few scenes and more or less gives up on any kind of unified tone. It doesn’t work, even despite the good efforts of the performers. Warren Beatty is very good as the titular politician; meanwhile, a young Halle Berry shows up as a young woman that teaches him the errors of his ways. (She gets a very good speech answering “Why do you think there are no more black leaders?”) Bulworth, to its credits, plays with a few daring ideas that remain evergreen (and I write this even despite the crazy electoral circus that was 2016), trying to pass along those ideas within a credible framework. (Witness Oliver Platt, shining as a political operative trying to keep his candidate on track.) But Bulworth ends up shooting itself in the foot a few times, most notably by having Beatty vamp it up by rapping at high-society events, adopting black speech patterns and trying to ingratiate himself in lower society. It’s often more embarrassing than successful, betraying a juvenile intent more than proving its political sophistication. By the end, Bulworth has become a grab bag of intriguing moment and cringe-worthy ones. Beatty the actor does well, but Beatty the director could have used more restraint and another script re-write. But then again, after the results of the 2016 American elections, it may be that our ability to distinguish satire from reality has completely evaporated.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) As a confirmed Quentin Tarantino fan, I was expecting The Hateful Eight with a bit of cinephile glee, curious to see what he had in mind. After all, each of his movie is usually an event, doing thing with cinema that other filmmakers usually don’t try. His newest offering makes the unusual bet to transform itself in practically a theatre piece by putting eight characters in a snowbound lodge. The suspense is notable, as most of these characters have backstories and plenty of secrets to reveal in the film’s lengthy running time. By the end, the film becomes graphically violent as tensions erupt in all-out shootouts, poisoning and hanging. The dialogues are good and the performances terrific (with particular applause for Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh), with some assured direction from Tarantino. And yet, and yet… The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite amount to something as good as it could have been. For all of the dialogue’s deliciousness, the film does feel overlong and far too busy for its own good. As the complex plotting and counterplotting accumulates, it’s easy to disengage from the experience of the film. The conclusion is also particularly grim, which doesn’t help. As a result, it feels less interesting than (say) Django Unchained and not quite as meaningful either. Still, even a lesser Tarantino film can feel far more fascinating than other films by more pedestrian authors, so let’s count our blessings that the film exists and wait for Tarantino to come up with something new.
(Video on Demand, November 2016) As much as it’s not advisable to trust Hollywood for anything approximating a history lesson, Free State of Jones offers a quick dramatic primer on the incredible story of Jones County, a small area of the Confederate South that managed to rebel against the southern government and remain independent throughout much of the American Civil War. Matthew McConaughey stars in another substantial role as Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who defiantly returns home with his dead cousin and rebels against the local authorities, drawing more and more support along the way. This takes us through the Civil War, well into reconstruction and the difficulties encountered after the moment most war movies end. It ends up being an uplifting story about inclusiveness, rebellion against injustice and the power that small communities can have in shaping their destinies. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Keri Russell have good supporting roles as wives who reach a curious understanding. Free State of Jones is not quite as successful as it could be: it feels long at more than two hours and a quarter, resorts to title cards to explain what it can’t dramatize, isn’t always able to make the most out of its scenes, loses its way in flashforwards and occasionally feels like it’s repeating the same thing. Still, it’s an interesting historical thriller, and it has a few weighty themes on its mind. It could have been better, but it easily could have been worse.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Anyone expecting Love, Rosie to remain a cute teen romantic comedy is in for a rough first few minutes, as the film boldly tackles missed opportunities, impulsive sex and an unwanted pregnancy that completely changes the protagonist’s life. Much of the rest follows according to the predictable frustration of seeing the film’s two romantic heroes comes close to consummating their love, but never quite managing to do so. Lily Collins stars, convincingly portraying a woman over eighteen years and numerous life changes. The highlight of the film may be the heartwarming relationship that the heroine has with her daughter. Otherwise, much of the story is a predictable cavalcade of near-romantic misses, intentionally frustrating until the big happy ending. Some of the humour goes a bit heavy on the humiliation of the heroine. The same characters pop up too often over the eighteen years of the story but really—who cares, it’s a romance film. Designed to be sappy and relatively successful in achieving its objectives, Love, Rosie doesn’t reach for the top of its category, but should manage to make its audience happy.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2016) Given that I have no perceptible affection for the slasher genre, revisiting the Halloween series twenty years later via Halloween H20 is more interesting for what it shows about the evolution of the genre in two decades and where the slasher genre was at the end of the nineties. Comparing the original 1978 Halloween (and its inseparable first sequel) to this nineties remake shows the gradual taming of the subgenre over the years. The 1998 version is slicker, glossier, occasionally sadistic but just as often hesitant to go too far. (e.g.; no killing kids in public restrooms, thankfully!) The focus on teenagers remains, even though this late sequel cleverly makes middle-aged Jamie Lee Curtis the hero of this belated fight with Michael Myers. Perhaps most of all, though, is Halloween H20’s demonstration that the nineties slasher genre was profoundly dull. Once the film spends the first 30 minutes setting up the plot pieces, everything else follows without much surprise or interest. It predictably builds up to a culminating fight in which the final girl presumably kills the villain … at least until later filmmakers change their minds. The problem is that Michael Myers is remarkably dull even as a quasi-supernatural psycho killer—he has no personality to speak of, and he feels less like a mortal threat than an annoyance you can’t get rid of. It’s possible to damn Halloween H20 with the faint praise of competent execution, even though even that has its limits: Much of this 90-minute film feels far too long, stretched beyond impatience through endless “suspense” moments in which we wait for the next predictable event to occur. At least there is some fun in looking at the cast: Beyond a competent Jamie Lee Curtis, there’s the big-screen debut of Josh Hartnett, an early appearance by Michelle Williams, a minor character for LL Cool J and a very short role for Joseph Gordon-Lewitt. It says much about the film’s interest that there’s more fun talking about the cast than in what happens in the film. Slasher movies periodically rise from the grave to annoy new generations, but few people seem to miss them when they go away.
(On TV, November 2016) One of the two best things about Halloween III is how it’s completely disconnected from the other movies in the series. For a series that has come to be defined by its antagonist Michael Myers, Halloween III stands completely apart, focusing on presenting a standalone film revolving around Halloween itself. The second best thing about Halloween III is that it’s, to put it bluntly, a crazy film. Trying to explain it cold sounds like an unhinged rant: A plot to kill children using Halloween masks made with pieces of Stonehenge, and robots killing anyone coming close to exposing the conspiracy! … yeah, OK. Other than the crazy disconnect though, there isn’t that much to be seen here. Stacey Nelkin still looks really good (which isn’t often the case for heroines in early-eighties films) but much of the film plays along dully in between flashes of insanity. The conclusion is grim, although it would have been interesting to see the kind of world that would have resulted from those events. There is a little bit of techno-historical interest in seeing how the film grapples with early questions of networked evil, surveillance cameras and the gradual integration of computers in everyday life. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that Halloween III is essential viewing except as an eighties curio. It does have its moment, though. Don’t expect to forget that infernal Silver Shamrock jingle anytime soon.