(On Cable TV, December 2016) This won’t matter to anyone else, but the last movie I watched in 2014 was an enigmatic drama featuring Jake Gylenhall and directed by a French-Canadian, and the last movie I watched in 2016 was also an enigmatic drama featuring Jake Gylenhall and directed by a French-Canadian. Demolition is far more audience-friendly than Enemy, though, even if much of the story takes place in the protagonist’s head as he acts out in strange ways. Everything starts when the protagonist’s wife is killed in a car crash. Our main character feels a curious mixture of remorse and lack of regret: He arguably contributed to the crash, but things weren’t all that happy between them. Now that his rich father-in-law is furious and his life is in shambles, our lead character flays for answers. He writes a letter to a vending machine company after a machine eats his money, picks up a demolition hobby (first with a professional crew, then freelancing on his own house), makes unlikely friends and lovers and looks at the world in a different way. As a portrait of a grieving man, Demolition is significantly more interesting than the usual, but even the surface distractions (all the way to a gaudy carrousel) can’t hide the sadness at the heart of the story. The quirky black humour does feel a lot like the current crop of independent comedies, but it helps the film stay more interesting than other similar films. Gyllenhaal is as good as ever in the lead role, ably supported by other capable actors in smaller roles. This being said, Demolition isn’t transcendent, and seems to avoid going to the end of its own train of thoughts: Even the titular demolition conceit seems to run out of steam at some point, muffled among other competing subplots. But even running at half-speed, Demolition works well and doesn’t waste our time. As a three-peat reunion between and Gyllenhaal and a French-Canadian director (this time, Jean-Marc Vallé rather than Denis Villeneuve), it keeps up the good quality of these collaborations.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) Had The Neon Demon been my first Nicolas Winding Refn film, I would have been furious at the downbeat fuzzy-plot nature of the movie. (Or maybe not—over the past few years, I’ve grown remarkably tolerant of movies that don’t put plot first.) But after Drive and most specifically Only God Forgives, I think I’ve learned to put Refn in a box alongside David Lynch: Visually spectacular movies with interesting set pieces but not necessarily a plot worth caring about. Expectation thus tempered, I was able to tolerate much of The Neon Demon without too much trouble … although, if scratched, I will admit that there’s a frustrating quality to the way The Neon Demon gets so close to having an intelligible story (fantastic or allegoric?), only to throw its chance away in a fit of artiness. In five-minute segments, though, the film is tolerable as it tracks the story of a new girl trying to make it in Hollywood. A fable about the exploitation of bodies in image-obsessed Los Angeles, The Neon Demon doesn’t try to stake out new ideas, but it does feature stylist cinematography, grotesque jumps into horror and an overall atmosphere of beautiful dread. Ella Fanning is OK as the deer-in-a-headlight protagonist, but Jenna Malone steals her scenes as a makeup-artist-by-day, lesbian-necrophiliac-vampire-by-night. (Or is she?) Keanu Reeves memorably shows up as a menacing presence. Still, it’s Refn’s work as a visual stylist that remains most notable here and is most likely to remain in mind even as the insubstantial story wafts away unwanted. The Neon Demon is not for everyone (Even after the acclaimed Drive, Refn seems resolutely uninterested in mainstream appeal), but at least I’ll concede that it felt slightly less irrelevant as Only God Forgives.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) I’m quite amazed at how they managed to make a feature-length film out of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince. The source material is short, surreal, enigmatic and intensely poetic—it’s been said that if you don’t understand it, you’re too old. The film manages to fit an entire framing story around the source material, and the surprise is that it works relatively well despite taking place on a far more prosaic level than the original. Here, a young girl destined to a rigidly planned life discovers the wonders of imagination and whimsy—the original material showing up as stories, flashbacks, and culminating in a third act that works as a sequel to the book. It’s complex material handled by a surprisingly deft touch—the book-inspired sequences are made out of beautiful stop-motion animation, while the framing device (which ends up being bigger than the original material) is in more conventional CGI. The two different styles of storytelling work together to build a film that uses the original as a springboard to discuss equally-ambitious themes, and if the conclusion is made accessible enough for everyone, the core of the story does keep its elusive quality. The material may be a touch too abstract for younger children, but the flip side is that the film can be enjoyed by adults as well. Quite a surprise—I would have bet on a butchered adaptation, but what we get is quite decent.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) Comedy from drama is tough, but drama from comedy is even tougher. Someone deluded about the fact that she’s singing badly is prime comic material when it’s about a fictional character, but it can feel like punching down if the subject is a real person. Hence Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest success in discussing its titular character, a 1920s New York socialite who convinced herself of her singing abilities (up to an album and a concert at Carnegie Hall) despite, well, not being very good at it. How do you approach a subject like that? By going past the jokes and taking a look at the character. Our viewpoint character here isn’t Jenkins as much as her husband in an unusual marriage, seeing her delusions in a more objective frame of mind. Florence Foster Jenkins manages to be funny without being cruel to its lead character, and while Meryl Streep brings her usual gravitas to the role, the script deftly finds a balance between the comedy in her actions and the drama of understanding what moves her. Hugh Grant is suitably sympathetic as her husband, and nicely shows how well he’s aging into more interesting roles beyond the foppish goof persona he maintained for most of his career. In other smaller roles, Simon Helberg is surprisingly good as a pianist thrown into the madness, while Nina Arianda steals two scenes as a socialite who can’t help but say what’s on her mind. The depiction of a slice of 1920s New York society also has its appeal. While the result isn’t much more than the usual Oscar-baiting biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins has the advantage of being funnier, quirkier and even perhaps more resonant because of it.
(In French, in theatres, December 2016) We’ve all seen Sing before: The animated film featuring a world of anthropomorphized animals. The musical comedy in which misfits gather together to put on a show to save something from destruction and rekindle their self-esteem. The madcap action sequences leading to laughter. Sing is that and not much more, but it does earn points for a breezy execution and an uncanny ability to play a jukebox of pop music to good effect. The French version of the film wisely doesn’t try to translate the songs and while the result may take bilingual fluency to decode (take it from me; bilingual dad got far more from the film than unilingual pre-schooler), it does keep much of the original-language humour intact … and features the original song performers. That’s not inconsequential when talents such as Tori Kelly (easily the best signer, but not the most enjoyable one) or Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson (not the best singers, but the best characters) are featured in the film. Animated with the big bold colourful style of Illumination Entertainment, Sing doesn’t ask much of its viewers and is built on top of the most basic plot structures available, but it’s friendly, snappy, halfway-clever in the way it moves familiar pieces and a lot of fun for the entire family.
(Google Play Streaming, December 2016) For a movie that deals with crippling depression, loneliness, autism and lives going awry, Mary and Max has a surprising amount of charm and humour. Executed through Claymation by writer/director/genius Adam Elliot, this is a film that boldly runs into absurdity, laughter and tears. Narration by Barry Humphries helps a lot in smoothing the film’s affecting mixture of moods into a unified whole, but it’s Elliot’s script that’s the glue holding everything together. The digressions themselves become fascinating, improbably helping the film’s somewhat simple plot stretch satisfyingly over 90 minutes. It’s a fascinating character study of two lonely people (capably voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Colette) in a tone quite unlike anything else. It’s well worth a look, and that’s why this review is so short—Mary and Max is a film that speaks for itself.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) I’ve been more upbeat than most Trekkers about the modern Star Trek reboot series, but even I have to admit that Star Trek: Beyond truly feels like the truest follow-up to the classic series so far. Structured as a standalone adventure in deep space, this third outing wisely focuses on smaller stakes, characters as developed in the first two movies, a bit of fan-service and an upbeat attitude that makes for a refreshing evolution from the first two films. In other words, it is pure classic Trek, done with today’s attitudes and special effects technology. The result may feel a bit restrained after the galaxy-spanning intrigue of In Darkness, but it’s also satisfying with fewer afterthoughts than in previous films. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) continue to be exceptionally good at incarnating the newest versions of their Trek characters, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Motorcycle usage aside, there’s one borderline-excessive “Sabotage” scene that harkens back to the first film, but it actually works well and is decently funny in itself. Still, the best aspect of the film has to be the look inside the Yorktown space station, a vertiginous showcase of SF dreams brought to life, visual effects and variable-gravity scene-blocking. It’s as memorable as anything is the series so far, and exactly the kind of showcase sequence to expect from a big-budget Trek film. I’m certainly ready for a fourth instalment.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) Big, colourful and bold, Horton Hears a Who! Is nonetheless a wholly average animated film. I don’t mean this as a slam: After all, the bare minimum for a kid’s movie these days is something that won’t make adults run away screaming after the fifth repetition. In this regard, Horton Hears a Who! is decently successful: There’s a lot to look at in terms of animation, and the story is serviceable enough to string along the set pieces. There’s a good moment of needle-in-a-haystack despair late in the move that’s a bit heavier than I expected for a film for young audiences. While I’m told that the film is greatly expanded from the original book, much of Dr. Seuss’s particular whimsy is captured in the film’s aesthetics. (Unfortunately, I happen to dislike the Seuss style…) Voice performances are fine, the animation is decent … but the film as a whole remains just this side of forgettable. At least it’s not actively unpleasant, and that’s already something.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) This was a nearly useless movie in more than one way. After running the shakycam trilogy to its natural conclusion, The Bourne Legacy came and went without making much of an impact, its frantic chase sequences unable to paper over a lack of ideas. Much of the same will also be said about Jason Bourne and Matt Damon’s return to the franchise. Despite intriguing concepts reflecting the modern world in a thriller (in which riots in Greece, drone surveillance and cell phone hacking are considered to be normal), the film doesn’t do much but repeat ideas previously explored in earlier entries, and does so with the nigh-unbearable quick-cutting spastic camera style that is Paul Greengrass’ biggest problem. (There was, a few weeks before the film’s release, a making-of clip showing a camera and stunt cars smoothly weaving through traffic on the Las Vegas Strip. Cruelly, this sequence has been chopped to mush in the finished film.) For a movie as smart as it thinks it is, Jason Bourne can occasionally be tone-deaf: There’s a sequence early in the film where a businessman gets a round of applause from journalists for stating “our products will never spy on you”, whereas in the real world the reaction would be raised eyebrows followed by frantic attempts to disprove him. I’m also nonplussed by the dumb decision to kill off a long-running supporting character for what is apparently no good reason. And so it is with Jason Bourne: things happen for no good reason, except printing money from a series that most people remember. At this time, it looks as if the film was a modest financial success, virtually ensuring that we’ll get another equally useless new instalment in two or three years.
(In French, Fourth or fifth viewing, December 2016) Surprisingly enough, I can’t find a review of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in my files even though I must have watched it a handful of times before. Heck, the film has even become a Christmas tradition in my household. What’s not to love about it? It’s an itemized look at the excesses of Christmas for the middle-class, deftly zigzagging between cynical laughs and exasperated sentiment. It’s a collection of memorable sequences, each of them madcap and taken to the limits. (My hands-down favourite: the “Squirrel!” sequence) It’s a showcase for Chevy Chase, who reprises his role as the Griswold patriarch, but gives him added depth by staying home. For men, it’s an excuse to look at the combined charms of Nicolette Sheridan, Beverly D’Angelo’s green outfit and eighties-chic Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It remains very funny even today, and I suspect that its timeless charm only makes it feel even more relevant nowadays. Worth seeing again; worth seeing every year.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) It’s been a bit more than thirty years since I’ve seen Braveheart (I distinctly recall using the Internet in summer 1996 to look up historical facts about the film) but those thirty years apparently haven’t been kind to my appreciation of the film. Watching it today, I’m not sure what annoys me most: the bombastic and tiresome “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS FREEEEDOM!” message; the fact that the hero fails miserably at what he tries to do; the unnecessary deviations from the facts; or the excessive length of the result. Probably all four. I’m mellowing in my increasingly older age, and while I won’t yet pretend to maturity, I’m also getting tired of films with a 13-year-old’s understanding of ideology as being impervious to common sense. I’m also tired of movies making up lies (i.e.; jus primae noctis) to push their own dramatic agendas. I’m also tired of movies stretching out over nearly forever. No matter the reason, I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Braveheart as I was before. I’ll gladly concede that actor/director Mel Gibson knows how to make a movie: this is a slick production, well worth whatever Academy Awards it got. But I’m going to stop short from professing any overwhelming personal enthusiasm for it.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) Now here is a pleasant surprise: an honest big-budget slam-bang action thriller featuring iconic images about the American Presidency, coming from… Finland. What? Well, yes. Thanks to the magic of special effects, global financing, location shooting and well-paid actors, even Finland is able to put together the kind of movie that Hollywood wishes it could make. Big Game’s premise is absurdly simple (Air Force One is sabotaged and brought down deep in Finland’s forests—only a boy can help the President escape his pursuers) but it works, largely because writer/director Jalmari Helander is willing to go big and bold on his images and action sequences. It does help that the film can rely on Samuel L. Jackson as a curiously cowardly president, and Jim Broadbent as an oracle of truth with a hidden agenda (his last scene is fantastic). But when the film shows Air Force One crashing into a lake, or being ripped apart by its auto-destruction mechanism, or the President running in the woods like hunted prey, or a heliborne freezer slamming through a forest, this is the kind of action movie iconography that Hollywood has unexplainably abandoned lately. No wonder if Big Game works so splendidly well once it firmly engages into its first act: It plays the action movie Hollywood game better than Hollywood itself, and keeps piling up the cool stuff. It’s unabashedly a thriller and it doesn’t try to be anything else. As such, it’s a success … and it’s too bad that a lot of American filmgoers won’t even hear of it.
(On TV, December 2016) I’m pretty sure I saw this film at some point as a kid, but since seeing the film was like rediscovering when a bunch of clichés came from, I’ll pretend that this is a first viewing. It’s certainly ad odd piece of Americana, more darkly skewed than I’d been led to believe or remember. There’s an odd affection and cynicism blend in the way the film is narrated and shot: part of it seems timeless or, at the very least, far more contemporary than the 1940s in which the film is supposedly set. The unreliable narration is a big part of the film—much of what seems overwrought or frankly bizarre (such as the lamp, such as the improbably gigantic Santa Mall mountain) can be explained as the feverish recollections of events experienced as a kid. The number of clichés and stock situations first seen here is astonishing—I knew on some level that A Christmas Story is considered a classic Christmas movie, but I’d lost track of the number of sequences (“you’ll shoot an eye out”, tongue stuck to a pole, etc.) that are featured in the film. It also keeps its best laugh for the end, making for a nice finish. Writer/director Bob Clark managed to keep much of Jean Shepherd’s original voice in making the film, literally and appropriately choosing him as the narrator of the film. While a bit too fashioned to count as a classic for me, it’s a decently measured look at the madness of Christmas, finding a way to deliver a heartfelt and fuzzy message while acknowledging the more cynical aspect of the period. I’ll watch it again in the next few years.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) As I’m exploring Woody Allen’s filmography, there’s a certain pleasure in seeing him back on-screen after a lengthy pause. To Rome with Love is an interwoven anthology film of four different stories playing against its roman backdrop, from Alec Baldwin’s recollections of a love triangle made alive to Roberto Benigni’s strange brush with fame to Allen discovering an unlikely signing talent to a couple of visiting newlyweds experiencing life in the capital. Like most ensemble stories, its interest rises and falls unpredictably, but the overall effect is strong, with enough romance, humour and weirdness to keep things interesting. Of the stories, I was most struck by Alec Baldwin’s resigned-but-wise reactions to the developing love triangle in-between Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page—it’s funny and a bit wistful at once, with plot and commentary joyously crashing in one another. The newlywed’s adventures are also funny, although occasionally too close to humiliation comedy for my taste. Allen’s segment is enhanced by a typical Allen performance as a nattering shmuck—the outlandish situation he creates is just the icing on the cake. Finally, there’s the unexplainable weirdness of an ordinary man (Benigni) brought to sudden fame and dropped just as rapidly—a metaphor for our social media age, perhaps, but still worthwhile on its own. To Rome with Love probably won’t endure as one of Allen’s classics—it’s too scatter-shot, too willing to make audiences laugh without deeper themes—but it’s a relatively good time at the hands of a comedy veteran, and perhaps his funniest film in a while. As an entry in his “European capitals” phase, it’s slight but decent.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) I am, once amazed, at writer/director Richard Linklater and what he has managed to do with Before Midnight. I shouldn’t like that film. It’s the third in a trilogy whose first film I haven’t yet seen (although I was quite taken by the second one), it’s a chatty domestic drama and its dramatic centrepiece is a terrible argument between husband and wife. It’s really not my cup of tea, but much like I was halfway smitten by Before Sunset, I’m similarly charmed by Before Midnight. It’s a dialogue-heavy film, but what dialogue! The interplay between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is fantastic even (especially) in the midst of their argument, and there’s a lot of wit in the way the conversations develop. The dialogue can be quotable at time (There’s a “bimbo” scene that’s an instant classic as far as I’m concerned) yet heartfelt soon afterwards. The development of the couple’s relationship over time and three films (yet in short, almost real-time bursts every time) is remarkable: in-between this trilogy and Boyhood, Linklater is carving a unique niche for himself as a filmmaker experimenting with time in ways others won’t even consider. The Greek Mediterranean scenery adds much to the film without undue effort, but the real heart of the film is in the script and the way the lead actors develop it. I’ve been taken by surprise twice by this trilogy, and I have to get my hands on Before Sunrise before long now that I think that I know what to expect.