(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) Ambitious but flawed, low-budget science-fiction film Listening tries to do just a bit too much with the means at its disposal. The muddy cinematography betrays the film’s micro-budget, but not quite as much as a script that leaps in one direction (as two scientists perfect telepathic technology and then discover that having no secrets isn’t a good thing) then another (as mysterious government operatives behave in ways they usually do in thrillers and take over the technology in an effort to enslave the world). The meandering, generally dull script can’t quite do justice to its central themes, and the result feels oddly off-mark. Listening isn’t all bad, mind you: there’s some ingenuity in the way writer/director Khalil Sullins stretches his budget, the actors do OK with the material they’re given, and the film has more ambition than most. Still, it feels off balance, imperfectly controlled and unsatisfying once everything messily wraps up. I’ve seen a lot of low-budget SF movies in the past week, so my expectations are properly calibrated—but Listening misses the mark enough to earn a middling recommendation for SF fans at best.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) Now here is an oddity: A big-budget Science Fiction/Action film produced by a big studio, but unceremoniously removed from theatrical exhibition schedules and essentially sold to Netlifx as an exclusive streaming release. Other than The Interview, there haven’t been many of those yet … but chances are that it will become more and more frequent. So: Is it because the film sucks? Actually, no: Watching Spectral, we’re reminded that while the film is not anywhere near a classic, it’s not that bad—there’s been considerably worse in theatres on a regular basis. While the story isn’t particularly refined (i.e.: undead entities killing US soldiers, set in an Eastern Europe city destroyed by combats) and borrow rather heavily from a mixture of Black Hawk Down, Aliens and Battle: Los Angeles, Spectral does have its strengths. The most noteworthy aspect of the film has to be the special effects, nicely executed and used copiously—for a supernatural war story with sprinklings of scientific justification (that is to say: blaming Bose Einstein condensates), Spectral does have a certain kick to its action sequences and for the novelty value of its concepts. A few clever sequences make things interesting, and the finale literally brings out the Big Guns for a spirited envoi. Writer/Director Nic Mathieu is more interested in delivering a big-screen videogame walkthrough, and the film does succeed as such. For Netflix, Spectral counts as a solid hit: a slick special-effects heavy action movie that delivers just enough to make its audience happy. Hopefully it sets a precedent for other similar deals between major studios and Netflix in the future.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) One good reason to enjoy low-budget science fiction movies is to see how writer/directors will manage to stretch limited budgets into imaginative premises. In Circle’s case, the solution is ingenious: a blackened-out set, with only a few overhead lights and coloured circles on the floor. Otherwise, fifty characters/actors dropping at the rate of one every minute and a half, as they’re all stuck in an elimination game. Who will survive the ordeal? After a pleasantly chaotic start in which the rules of the game are deduced, Circle becomes a series of moral debates as various versions on the “who deserves to live” theme are explored. The script does have a heavy hand, as may be expected from the setup, but after a while viewers will learn to follow along for the ride. While the ending won’t please those looking for a definite moral answer, it does conclude the plot threads effectively (which is more than many other low-budget SF movies do). Writers/directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione have crafted something intriguing and effective in Circle, and at barely less than 90 minutes, the result is well worth a look for fans of SF thrillers.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) As horrible as it sounds, sometimes it feels good to hate a movie. While 400 Days is so-so with occasional intriguing moments for most of its duration, it firmly plans the nails in its own coffin in its final seconds, as it races toward an answer to all of the film’s mysteries—then cuts to black before offering any satisfaction. At that point, viewers are more than justified—encouraged, even—to throw soft things at their TV, curse the name of writer/director Matt Osterman, burn whatever Syfy fan club card they may have and vow to one-star the film on all available social media platform. If hate is your thing, they go wild—400 Days practically begs for polarized reactions after building itself as a mystery and withholding answers. As a younger man, I may have done any of these things. Nowadays, however, thanks to David Lynch, Nicholas Windig Refn and the Coen brothers, I’m more the kind of reviewer to shrug and move on. I have other things to do than to play whatever game the film is playing, and there are far better movies available from the same places that offer 400 Days. Had there been a better ending, I may have spent some time talking about the visual polish of the film, some interesting moments, adequate character works by the actors and how the movie could have pushed some intriguing themes further. As it is, though, I’m just tempted to just watch something else and forget much of 400 Days, with a note to my future self saying “don’t watch this again, it’s not worth it”.
(On DVD, January 2017) Teenage sex comedies are a dime a dozen, but there’s something better than average in Sex Drive’s execution that makes it float above most of its genre. The idea to combine a road movie with a more typical sex comedy isn’t new, but it makes for a clever way to structure the film, culminating in a ridiculous ending in which a bunch of characters converge on a single location. Josh Zuckerman is the likable anchor of the film, but he’s not nearly as interesting as secondary or tertiary characters such as Clark Duke’s improbable teenage Casanova, Seth Green’s trolling Amish or James Marsden’s confused older brother. The gags hit or miss, but there’s a forward rhythm to the road movie as it gets its protagonist closer and closer to his stated goals. Parents should rest easy in knowing that like most other sex comedies, Sex Drive ends up promoting good old solid American values after all. Watchable without being exceptional, it’s nonetheless is better than much of its genre. Note: The “unrated” DVD contains an extended edition that features blatantly gratuitous nudity (green-screened in existing footage), alternate takes and bloopers inserted within the film. None of it is essential, and the filmmakers are quite right to feature a PSA before the movie telling newcomers to watch the “rated” version of the film first.
(On DVD, January 2017) I won’t go so far as to say that time can forgive anything—including a wholly unnecessary invasion of a foreign country that ended up killing tens of thousands of people and upsetting the geopolitical balance of an entire region—but barely a week into the Trump administration, I’m far more receptive to a sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush. It took noted agitator Oliver Stone to do it as well, and he didn’t even wait until the end of Bush’s second term to release it. Watching W. ten years later, it’s remarkable how Stone seemed to have been on target even then. For all of the revelations of the past ten years, the events chronicled in W. (hopping in-between a quick biography of Bush’ life, intercut with crucial moments in the ramp up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq) still ring truthfully, with the personalities of the people involved being immediately recognizable. For those who overdosed on political commentary at the time (myself included), there’s a treat in reactivating those near-forgotten neural pathways and being able to recognize public figures merely from the actors playing them. (Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice—woo!) Their portrayal seem harsh but fair—and having Dick Cheney deliver an impromptu presentation on the harsh realities of strategic geopolitics is enough to make one wish for an evil genius rather than an incompetent salesman in the White House. (But I digress … or do I?) Suffice to say that W. may not exonerate Bush from what should weigh on his conscience, but it does humanize a president that was easy to caricature, even though some of the dad/son dynamics in-between Josh Brolin (a fine Bush Jr.) and James Cromwell (a very good Bush Sr.) seem overdone. All I know is that I ended up enjoying W. far more than I expected, and not all of it has to do with validating pointless hours obsessing over American politics.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) I tend to become oddly protective of some low-budget films, and Time Lapse is the kind of small-scale SF movie that I want to tell people about. It’s certainly not a perfect film. The limits of the budget are clearly delineated by the few sets, limited cast of characters, indifferent acting and muddy cinematography. But at the same time, it does have quite a bit of charm in the way it tells an unusual time-travel story, based on a camera that can see 24 hours in the future. The intimate but tight script eventually deals with get-rich schemes, artistic inspiration, predestination, curious criminals and intimate betrayals. At the end, it feels like a classic Science Fiction short story that could have been published in the genre magazine at any time since the 1970s—a rather high compliment for a low-budget movie. Writer/director Bradley King cleverly makes the most out of what he has at his disposal, and the result is a pleasant surprise—especially compared to some movies of the same budget/genre. Danielle Panabaker isn’t bad as the secret protagonist of the story, while Matt O’Leary and George Finn are blander as the other main characters. Ingenious, surprising and more finely controlled than many other time-travel films, Time Lapse classifies as a hidden gem. Keep your expectations low and you may be pleasantly surprised.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) As far as low-budget time-travel science fiction thrillers go, Synchronicity is pretty much an average example of the form. It maximizes its limited budget through a limited cast of characters, a few locations, screenwriting ingenuity and cinematography dark enough to hide plenty of details. Time travel is nearly always a good low-budget SF premise, as the magic of movies allows for big SF ideas on next to no extra investment. The flip side, unfortunately, is that most time-travel thrillers tend to repeat themselves. Weirdness accumulates until we realize that the main character has been meddling in his past and we nearly always have to run through the same scenes twice. Writer/director Jacob Gentry plays the game competently but can’t completely avoid the lowlights of the form. It doesn’t help that the characters are largely stock (the genius scientist hero, the wacky sidekicks, the femme fatale, the corrupt businessman) and that Synchronicity seems very fond of its noir backdrops without quite making the most out of it. At least Chad McKnight is suitably sympathetic as the lead character, with Brianne Davis bringing the heat as the woman who may or may not be an instrument of the antagonist. It’s comfortable, watchable and satisfying without quite going beyond the basics. There are a few better examples of the form out there (Prisoner X, ARQ, even Paradox) if Synchronicity isn’t quite enough.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) As far as low-budget Science Fiction movies go, ARQ is quite a bit better than similar movies. The first SF movie to be released as a Netflix original (having acquired the rights to the film like any other studio), ARQ is cleverly written, professionally directed and features decent actors. The premise stems from familiar guideposts, as a man wakes up to criminals invading his house for money, dies and finds himself stuck in a time loop. But writer/director Tony Elliott then has fun playing with the premise, as someone else joins the protagonist in the time loop and bigger mysteries are revealed. The somewhat bleak ending is divisive (much of it falls into a big plot hole), but the film itself is intriguing, satisfying and slickly executed. Robbie Amell makes for a suitably sympathetic hero, while Rachael Taylor has a more complicated role than what initially appears to be his girlfriend. The result is perfectly watchable despite a small cast, limited locations and low-budget aesthetics. ARQ is even more interesting as a “Netflix Original”, suggesting that the streaming company may be able to inject some good genre original programming in its line-up.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) A summary of Howard Lovecraft and The Frozen Kingdom either reads like a validation of how geek culture is now mainstream, or a big practical joke. Consider this: An animated kid’s movie in which a young HP Lovecraft travels to another dimension, befriends Cthulhu to become his funny animal sidekick and saves a kingdom from nefarious plans to bring back the Old Ones. Yes, this movie actually exists. Whether your mind is broken or twisted by the revelation is immaterial: Here we are. There it is. It may or may not help to learn that the film is a low-budget Canadian production and that it’s in the lower tier of what’s happening these days in kids’ animated features. Much of the film is clearly dull. The blocky visual design and primitive animation doesn’t have the polish of what’s considered the current standard for computer animation. The story and dialogue are similarly bland, simply moving the action along the lines of a typical kids-fantasy plot with predictable plot points, sidekicks, allies and villains. The bizarre intention to make a children’s film using Lovecraft falls between two chairs: Few kids know Lovecraft enough to care, and the adult fans who enjoy Lovecraft’s antediluvian, loathsome, tenebrous prose won’t sit still for a bargain-basement kids fantasy. (But of course, a substantial number of Lovecraft fans never even tried to read one of his stories.) Howard Lovecraft and The Frozen Kingdom is a remarkable film for the bizarre nature of its premise, but it’s not a good one in terms of execution or moment-by-moment joy of watching. Knowing that it exists is enough.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I’m the kind of viewer that should be open to weirdness in movies, but that’s not always true and Swiss Army Man clearly shows the limits of what I can tolerate. To be clear, the idea of a man using a farting corpse to escape from a desert island ranks as quirky and faintly cool. But it’s when Swiss Army Man gets deeper into “explaining life as if to a child or alien” that it steps from weird to twee and loses me along the way. By the time the ending of the film attempts to blur the lines between dream-logic and magical realism, imposes some kind of moral conclusion and crafts a magical soaring coda, I have checked out. The film, literally and figuratively spends too much time in the woods for me to care, and it’s not the frank language, candid looks at humanity or piled-upon weirdness that help the film along the way. To be fair, Paul Dano is almost perfectly cast as the protagonist, while Daniel Radcliffe has a terrific turn as a corpse gradually coming back to life while revealing prodigious capabilities. Sometimes, a film’s details don’t matter as much as the way it’s put together, and it’s that overall atmosphere that annoyed me so much about Swiss Army Man. Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood for twee, or perhaps I’m just far too much of a square to tolerate the kind of questions asked by the film. All I know is that I found the film far less interesting than its hype suggested.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) There is a welcome high-concept simplicity to The Shallows that sets it apart from so many other humdrum efforts. Here, a surfer is injured and stranded on a small island in an isolated bay, with an unusually tenacious shark circling her for food. It sounds like a thin premise even for a 90-minute movie, but the script does have enough in the tank to sustain the film to the end with a minimal amount of flashbacks outside the claustrophobic situation. Blake Lively stars in a film that features her (and only her) for most of its running time—a demanding physical role in which she’s battered, bled, driven to madness and showing a fairly wide range of emotion for a single-location film. Still, the most valued player here is director Jaume Collet-Serra, bringing his usual madness to a script that benefits from his kind of excessive showboating. On-screen text messages are familiar by now, but it’s when Lively is stuck on the rocks that Collet-Serra gets at his best, cleverly establishing a good sense of place before letting loose with a surprising variety of action sequences. The Shallows earns a special place as a minimalist premise maximally executed: It’s quite a bit of fun to watch, and there is seldom a dull moment. The shark makes for an implausible antagonist, but every great movie can use a great villain, so that’s the role it plays. Lively is quite good in a tough role (no wonder she’s emerging as one of the most capable actresses of her cohort—also see what she could manage in The Age of Adaline) and the film’s conclusion is suitably grandiose. The Shallows is a nice surprise find, especially for those who assumed this would be just another shark movie.
(On DVD, January 2017) I don’t normally have much patience for westerns that last two hours and a half, and there’s no denying that Open Range could have benefited from a more aggressive editing pace. Still, this is a Kevin Costner western, and after Dances with Wolves and The Postman, we all know what that means: Expansive vistas, rough-hewn charisma from its stoic hero, tepid pacing and melodramatic filmmaking. Open Range is in-line with his earlier work: good without being perfect, with enough old-fashioned charm that should appeal to an older audience. Costner gets to play his own archetype, but the film’s standout role has to be the “Boss” played by Robert Duvall: the saving grace of the film’s 139 minutes is having the chance to hear Duvall crunch down on folksy tough dialogue, the kind of which we easily could have used fifteen more minutes. Otherwise, there’s a refreshing realism to the way the story evolves, with casual violence when necessary, an unforgiving environment and tough guys trying to keep what’s theirs. There’s even a grown-up romance thrown in the mix, and it doesn’t feel too out-of-place. Open Range may not sound particularly exciting on paper (or in the middle of the two hours and a half), but some of its moments stand out, including a gritty gunfight where we can honestly fear for at least one character. Not a bad choice, not a bad western.
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) Anyone looking for a dark thriller should be pleased by The Girl on the Train, but I don’t think anyone will remember it six months later. The story of a damaged woman who is revealed to be embroiled in a complex web of obsession, abuse and guilt, this thriller has so much fun raising all sorts of false leads and dark portents that by the time the conclusion comes, it’s almost a linear let-down. Still, Emily Blunt brings a studied vulnerability to the lead character, and the film doesn’t settle for any easy hero/villain classification when even the protagonist suspects herself of being a murderer. Events get impressively twisted in the second half, with the gloomy cinematography not helping lift the sombre veil hovering over the film. Unfortunately, the pile-up of memory games and criss-crossed relationship eventually blurs into a gray fog—much like the blacked-out drunk heroine, it’s a challenge to explain the plot even a few days after seeing the film. For that reason, I expect that The Girl on the Train won’t have much of a long shelf life other than being an adequate watch-and-forget thriller. It could have been worse but, on the other hand, there’s no use trying to compare this with Gone Girl or other better thrillers of late.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) For such an underwhelming horror movie, White Noise does have the distinction of an unnerving trailer—a trailer so good, in fact, that it managed to make me seek out the film even twelve years later. This being said, let’s be honest: Critics savaged this film upon release, and time hasn’t been kind to it since then. For all of the energy and sincerity that Michael Keaton can bring to a character fascinated by supernatural electromagnetic phenomena, White Noise has a far better premise than what it can limply show on-screen. Far too often settling into familiar horror clichés, this is a film with few surprises in store, starting with the tired “communicating with the dead brings back evil spirits”. The mythology of the film is muddled, and there’s a far too arbitrary nature to the script as it manipulates its protagonist toward a specific third act. From a promising beginning, White Noise gradually loses its effectiveness to the point when its tragic ending only elicits a shrug. Too bad—but the trailer (which doesn’t feature much footage from the movie) still has a kick to it.