(On TV, January 2017) You could retitle Sex and the City as “Wish Fulfillment for Middle-Aged Women: The Movie” and I’m not sure it would be entirely dismissive. But I’m being too harsh: I’m not in the target audience for the series to which this is a follow-up, and even I have to admit that there is a contagious enthusiasm to the movie’s most entertaining moment. Shopping, trips, contentment and inner peace—what’s not to like, even though the details may differ? Watching this as someone with only the barest knowledge of the TV show (to the point of: “Wow, I did not expect that much sex/nudity in a movie called Sex in the City!”) is strange—while the film doesn’t forget to have a plot, it’s often bare-bones in the way it presents its characters or moves them through the motions of their dramatic arc. There are lengthy digressions simply to scratch the wish fulfillment of its audience. It boldly sets off to hyper-consumption for no other reason than it can do so. And yet, and yet … it works. It’s a good time. It’s the kind of movie that reassures you that there is good in the world, even though it may be more easily attainable with a credit card with a ludicrously high limit. Sarah Jessica Parker is very likable in the main role despite odd script-dictated behaviour, and Kim Cattrall remains the most interesting of the three other main cast members, while Chris Noth remains the ultimate Mr. Big. Sex and the City may be a wish fulfillment film, but then again so are most big-budget movies—and for some strange reasons, few movie critics ever mention how we should be dismissing action films as power fantasies of seeing average guys shooting terrorists in the head to save the world/wife/kids. From that perspective, Sex and the City is a welcome complement.
(Video On-Demand, January 2017) “Jason Bourne meets Rain Man” is just about the laziest way to describe The Accountant, but it sort-of-works at explaining the high concept at the heart of the movie—an autistic man officially working as a top-notch accountant who happens to be unusually skilled at assassination. Cue the complications. Ben Affleck is surprisingly effective as the titular character—it takes a lot of charisma to make an affectless character sympathetic, and it works for him. Anna Kendrick is cute enough in a generic role, but the film sort of loses interest in her character after a while, leaving her more or less out of the third act and never making her a love interest. There is a quirkiness to The Accountant that’s not to be dismissed—after all, how many movies manage to make forensics accounting seem thrilling? But as an action thriller, it’s more or less forgettable once we’re back to the action classics of guys shooting at each other. The distinctiveness of the film is found in their quieter moments, even though the treatment of autism is old-hat by now. There are a few plausibility problems in how a wandering assassin (ready to move away at a moment’s notice) could sustain a living in a profession such as accounting, but never mind—from the premise on, it’s obvious that The Accountant isn’t meant to take place in reality. It does offer a new (ish) kind of hero, though, and that’s already more than most other big-budget thrillers these days.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I had reasonably high hopes for Austrian horror film Goodnight Mommy—positive word of mouth had this one pegged as a worthwhile import, to the point where I was looking forward to its appearance on the cable TV movie channel’s schedule. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t measure up—and it may not be a case of hype exceeding the content as much as the film itself being repellent and confused. Something is up from the first few moments of the movie, as two twin boys suspect that something is wrong with their mom as she comes back from surgery with her face bandaged. But, as it turns out, this is a misdirection of what’s really wrong here… For much of its first two thirds, Goodnight Mommy plays as effective and intriguing low-budget horror—three people isolated in a big modern house, slowly suspecting themselves of the worst. The film then veers off in a very different and repellent direction once it turns the tables and makes the twin boys as sadistic villains—it leads to a torture scene that almost unbearable to watch. (And, in a real-life darkly amusing twist, my non-horror-fan wife walking in on the scene with me being unable to defend the film’s rapid descent in bloody torture horror.) Then it’s a rapid sprint to a downbeat ending in which the film obliquely resolves itself, explaining [what] was [what] the whole time and leaving a few mysteries open that I don’t really care to explore. I’ll admit that the torture scene is effective—if only because it plays differently (and more viscerally) than in most horror films that relish goriness: by this time in the movie, the characters have been well established, and what happens between them carries some dramatic weight. On the other hand, too far may be too far, and there’s no law forcing me to like what happens at that time. I certainly can see the resemblance between this and The Babadook: the grief, the perspective-switching, the importance of the mother-and-son dynamic … but there’s no contest in my mind as to which is the vastly superior film … and it’s not Goodnight Mommy.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) What a disappointing follow-up to a quirky breakout movie. Monsters wasn’t perfect, but it had great scenery, an interesting take on the alien invasion theme and a low-budget charm. This sequel, which abandons the dynamics of a couple’s trek in favour of a desert-bound military thriller, is just … dull. It doesn’t look too bad, but it’s simply boring in ways that its premise suggests it shouldn’t. Domesticating the alien means that deadly threats are reduced to a beautiful light show, and the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The links to the original film story are tenuous (same creatures, different part of the world but the background information doesn’t seem to hang together) but whatever story is put forward in this follow-up doesn’t go beyond the usual Iraq war movie clichés. The aliens are barely part of the plot. It doesn’t amount to much either, barely pushing the first film’s mythology forward and even regressing in some ways on the “alien as infection” angle. The only actor of note here is Sofia Boutella, showing up briefly to save the film from an excess of testosterone and being distinguishable from a cast that largely looks the same. While it’s possible that Dark Continent may be after the same themes of futility and hopelessness engendered by the American experience in post-liberation Iraq, there’s very little depth and even less interest in the result. File this one under “DTV sequels to avoid”.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I have resigned myself to the fact that David Lynch and I will never enjoy a harmonious filmmaker/moviegoer relationship. Case in point: Blue Velvet, often acclaimed as one of his most representative films and almost a bona fide classic thirty years later. For all of my good intentions and Blue Velvet’s overall accessibility compared to other Lynch films, I found myself watching the film in a fairly detached manner, unwilling to try to make too much sense of it given the quicksand trap examples established by his other movies. I’ve never been particularly eager to play the mind games of Lynch’s movies, and found that my best viewing mode for them is purely contemplative, not expecting the plot to make sense. Even in that state, though, I have to admit that Dennis Hopper’s performance is ferociously good: His character, all id and swagger, thunders on-screen and has his way with characters like a tornado. We can only, like the film’s protagonist, watch in awe and hope that he doesn’t notice us. Blue Velvet has, at its core, a long sustained sequence of abuse and voyeurism that can’t easily be forgotten. It’s by far the standout segment in a film dealing with crime and violence in a small town. Kyle MacLachlan is fine as the viewpoint character and Laura Dern does have a few good moments (in-between this and Wild at Heart—perhaps my less-disliked Lynch film—, a substantial part of her best filmography owes much to Lynch) but it’s Isabella Rossellini who earns her acting acclaim in this film as Hopper’s souffre-douleur. It makes, in typically Lynchian sense, for a big surreal ball of moviemaking, although I note with some comfort that there is a level of superficial understanding here that’s not necessarily possible in other more enigmatic Lynch films. When I say that Blue Velvet ranks highly among Lynch’s best films, keep in mind that I’m grading on a curve.
Crown Business, 2013 (2014 reprint), 320 pages, C$23.00 hc, ISBN 978–0307951618
You may think that Lego (the brick, the toy, the brand!) is as eternal as anything else. After all, the Lego brick has existed in its current form since 1958, and we’re now seeing fourth-generation Lego fans putting together their first Duplo sets. Thanks to the movies, the videogames, the omnipresent sections in Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us and every single other toy retailer, Lego appears permanent, immutable—a comforting island of stability in our ever-changing world.
But hang around Lego-related forums long enough, and you will hear a variation on the following story:
In 2003, Lego was six months away from bankruptcy. They’d brought in some MBA CEO to boost profits, but they didn’t know what they were doing and started doing things that weren’t even related to Lego. They had so many different pieces that they sold sets for less than they cost to make. So they booted out the CEO, got back to their roots and Lego became profitable once again.
(A more detailed account can be found on/r/lego/)
It’s a nice story. But it’s never mentioned in official hagiographies such as Dorling Kindersley’s The Lego Book. It’s barely mentioned in more generalist overviews such as A Million Little Bricks: Even in so-called histories of the company, people would rather read about the fun factor of toys than be serious about how Lego lost its way and almost went out of business.
That’s too bad, because there’s a big box of lessons to be learned from Lego’s near-death experience. It’s a complicated story (far more than the above tidy summary may suggest) with elements of irony, comeuppance, resilience and cognitive breakthroughs. Fortunately, David Robertson and Bill Breen took it upon themselves to dig deep into Lego’s recent corporate history and tell us about it in Brick by Brick.
So here’s the longer summary of the story of Lego’s near-death experience: In the late nineties, after a bad 1998 in which Lego posted its first-ever losses, the company took a look at the state of the toy industry and got very worried. Experts were telling them that with the rise in videogames and the shortening of childhood, physical toys such as Lego were doomed to irrelevance. Boys wouldn’t want to play with bricks to build stuff in a creative way: they wanted immediate gratification, stories and game-inspired play. So Lego did what nearly every reasonable business does: it followed the experts and bought heavily into the innovation mantra. They decided to launch several major game-changing projects at once. In doing so, they de-emphasized the Lego brick in favour of action figures, videogames, and simpler construction sets.
It didn’t work. Fans rebelled against the Znap, Primo, Scala and Gallidor lines. The first videogame went nowhere. Lego bet big on Star Wars and Harry Potter sets in a year when new movies in those series weren’t even released. Toy retailers told Lego that the company was arrogant, didn’t listen and didn’t know their own business as well as the people selling Lego sets. A financial study of the company showed that Lego itself did not know how much its playsets cost to make, and that its parts inventory was unmanageable. By 2003, compared to traditional investments, the company had lost “half a million dollars per day, every day, for ten years” [P.68]. While “six months to bankruptcy” is nowhere to be found in Brick by Brick, there’s a passage making it clear that within months, the company was expected to be sold to a larger toy manufacturer: “We didn’t know if we would make it through the year.” [P.99]
But then something remarkable happened: Lego started facing up to its own problems. A relatively new hire from the world of management consulting, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, was tasked to write a report on the problems faced by the company and then, in an improbable twist of fate, was named as co-CEO during the difficult period in which corrections were made. Things did not get better overnight—Lego had to eat a lot of crow in the years following its transformation. Innovative projects were scrapped; assets were sold; people were fired. Traditional Lego strengths, such as its perennial “City” sets, were brought back to the spotlight. Star Wars and Bionicle sets, which kept the company going even during the worst years, taught the company lessons that it hasn’t forgotten.
The aftermath made Lego into the company it is today: It started listening to its retailers, bolstered relationships with adult fans who made an increasingly big part of its business (hence the modular Creator sets that have become essential purchases for AFOLs), made a multimedia strategy template on which its own new franchise could be launched (e.g.; Ninjago, Chima, Nexo Knights), learned how to best invest in videogames and yet managed to keep a wholesome atmosphere around the company.
AFOLs should be forewarned: This is primarily a business book rather than a book by/from Lego enthusiasts. The authors are business experts and academics—they are not fans or bloggers and there’s a nakedly didactic intent to much of the book. In classic business-literature style, every chapter is neatly structured so that it begins by telling you what it’s going to be about, details its main idea, and then wraps up by repeating once again what the chapter was about. This is a style suited for harried executives looking to quickly extract business lessons from the book rather than for casual readers. It may annoy those who aren’t necessarily used to this form. On the other hand, Brick by Brick is pretty good on the details of Lego—there are only a few places where the text doesn’t feel quite right while still being factual, almost as if the authors were speaking with a slightly different accent that the one shared by Lego fans.
From a strictly business perspective, the message of the book is a refreshing change of pace: Robertson and Breen’s big takeaway is that innovation has to be managed, and that it should remain a complement to the company’s core activities—Lego being renowned for its bricks, anything that challenged the brick should have been seen as a bet and treated accordingly. For businessmen reading the book, the lesson seems to be “innovate cautiously”: don’t launch yourself in every direction. Listen to your employees and stakeholders. At a time when galloping Internet innovation fever is finally calming down, it makes for a relevant message.
It’s also worth noting that as much as the slightly longer story of Lego’s near-death experience is more nuanced than the capsule summary told in Lego forums, Brick by Brick does impose a sometimes disjointed narrative on a messier set of events. Robertson and Breen want to sell you their experience and their view on the events, but those are sometimes undermined in the text or by events following the release of the book. Much is made about Bionicle, for instance, and how its approach to building a franchise original to Lego saved the company—while ignoring that Bionicle alone accounted for a sizeable portion of Lego’s ballooning part inventory problems. (Today, Bionicle remains a semi-active footnote in Lego history—few of the parts developed for that theme are still used, even though it led to further “buildable action figures” sub-themes.) The authors spend a lot of time talking about Lego’s revolutionary entry in board games as the next big thing … except that by 2016–2017, Lego board games are already a mere footnote in Lego history.
(It’s not the only subsequent development that the authors missed, albeit of no fault of their own. One of the biggest stories of Lego’s past five years, for instance, has been the introduction of the “Friends” and “Disney Princesses” lines aimed at girls: sets just as challenging as anything produced for boys, but made of vivid colours, featuring more attractive mini-dolls and backed up by a strong story component, reflecting the slightly different way girls play compared to boys. Speaking Legolese, I am a confirmed Friends fan, and not just because it’s an essential complement to City’s overemphasis on cops-and-robbers sets.)
Such contradictions and blind spots are why Brick by Brick’s conclusions and sequence of events are often to be taken with some skepticism. Far more interesting are the facts of Lego’s bad years and the journalism work that was required to interview enough Lego employees to be able to present such a complete overview of the events. I’ve been reading a lot of Lego books lately, and none have delved into this topic as comprehensively as Brick by Brick. While the book’s business aesthetics can be annoying, while their story often structures itself out of shape in trying to support its unifying theory, while it feels incomplete given the past five years in Lego history, it’s nonetheless a book worthy of a spot on any serious Lego fan’s bookshelf. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate even more the place that Lego occupies in the mind of anyone who’s ever played with those building bricks … and what it takes to stay a permanent reference for generations.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I read J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel so long ago that I had no real expectations for the movie adaptation except “go ahead and do justice to the source material’s insanity”. Yet I was disappointed. The first half-hour of High-Rise is simply fantastic, as our protagonist moves into a high-rise apartment building that’s nearly a world upon itself. But there’s madness in the building, and it doesn’t take the unsolicited advances of his upstairs neighbour to figure it out—before long, the building has stratified itself in upper-versus lower classes, with violence and anarchy (and, heaven forbid, uncollected heaps of trash) being the new normal. The setup is terrific, but the execution of the premise less so—basic world-building details don’t make sense (the decision to set the film in the seventies gives and takes away), the film seems to lose itself in less interesting subplots and our protagonist eventually seems to be nothing more than a bystander to a brutal social breakdown. While he eventually copes with it (as shown by the brilliantly deranged first scene), the film literally doesn’t go any further. The satire is unevenly handled and while some of the quotes are delicious, the film itself seems to be looking for something to do in its second half. Too bad; High-Rise has a sense of surreal anarchy that occasionally works well. At least there are a few good performances in the mix. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t do much but looks good doing so, while much of the same can also be done with Sienna Miller. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Moss does have a more challenging role. This is my first film from writer/director Ben Wheatley and while I’m not completely displeased by the results, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk that will lead me to seek out the rest of his filmography. In the meantime, High-Rise doesn’t embarrass the source novel, but it doesn’t do it full justice either.
(On DVD, January 2017) I had convinced myself that I was going to get a talky dull historical drama with The Painted Veil, which explains why its long and dull first act wasn’t much of a surprise. Another estranged couple in colonial times, playing dirty tricks on one another in an effort to win an ongoing argument against a lush south-Asian backdrop. That’s what I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting was for the movie to become steadily more engrossing from the moment that the couple sets foot in the small village where most of the story will take place. There’ a great “I’d rather infect myself than spend more time with you” scene that’s remarkably funny, but it’s also the spark that rekindled my interest in the film. Things get more dramatic as disease spreads around the village and political problems rise up just as our lead couple learns to love themselves again. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts are both quite good in the lead roles (with Norton having the harder job of making his character impossible and then softening up), with noteworthy supporting presences by Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber. The cinematography is suitably exotic, and there’s a sobering use of “À la Claire Fontaine” in the soundtrack for those who understand French. The Painted Veil amounts to better film that I was expecting—a reasonably entertaining historical drama at a time when I was bracing myself for a dull one.
(On DVD, January 2017) As far as mean and slightly seedy crime dramas go, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead hits most of the right notes. Featuring great performances (most notably from an often-naked Marisa Tomei, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, unfortunately playing a heroin addict) and a script that ping-pongs in time, this is the kind of low-stake but well-executed crime drama that doesn’t set the box office on fire but should feature in every moviegoer’s diet. (And I say this having missed the movie in theatres, only to catching a decade later on DVD.) The film does get grim as the consequences of “a simple theft” go awry in increasingly dramatic ways. By the end of the movie, you can expect a few deaths, a family torn apart and no one feeling particularly happy about the whole thing. Nonetheless, in the hands of veteran director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead steadily moves forward despite a slightly too long running time, and has a few surprises in store until the end. Not bad, even though I’d be surprised if viewers will be able to recall much of the plot weeks after seeing the film.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) Whew. There’s no doubt that Hair is a product of the seventies—if you try hard enough, you will even smell the decade through the film. A ham-fisted musical about hippies facing down the establishment, Hair struggles with caricatures, ludicrous plot twists, outdated messages and the inescapable conclusion that the hippies never amounted to much. (I kid, but not too much: In the great hippies-versus-establishment debate, I side firmly with The Man.) Only three songs register in mind: The title track is catchy, while “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” have become seventies classic in their own right. This is a classic musical in the purest sense—meaning that people who can’t stand musicals won’t be convinced by this one either. This being said, there is something almost charming in seeing the 1970 (ish) re-creation of New York City, and the 20,000 extras used for the Central Park sequence make for a few jaw-dropping sequences. Milos Forman knows how to shoot a big movie, and while John Savage is a bit dull as the clean-cut protagonist, Treat Williams is a bit better as a hippie, and Beverly D’Angelo is memorable as an uptown girl. Calling Hair a product of the late seventies is a bit misleading, as it clearly channels the obsessions of 1968 America better than the disco era. But it’s definitely a trip through the time machine and even if it’s unequal, it does have a few moments of brilliance.
(On DVD, January 2017) There have been many attempts to tell stories around J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in the past decades (the fatally flawed Pan “reimagining”, the dull Finding Neverland biopic, all the way back to 1991’s Hook, presenting itself as a sequel), but I don’t think there’s been as pure a telling of the story itself as the 2003 version of Peter Pan. Strong special effects, decent actors, lush visuals and decent direction by P.J. Hogan all work well in presenting the myth with the latest technical polish. The story’s edges haven’t been polished to Disney perfection and that’s quite all right—the original novel is not without its darker moments. Now, Peter Pan has never been anywhere close to the top of my favourite stories, but this film does a fairly good job at re-creating what makes it special. In-between Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Olivia Williams and Ludivine Sagnier, there’s plenty of acting power here to support the visual effects. In many ways, there isn’t anything else to say—if you want to see a faithful adaptation of the novel, this is still your best bet.
(In French, On Cable TV, January 2017) There’s a temptation, in watching old Science Fiction, to ask if it has correctly predicted the future. This completely misses the point: SF reflects the times in which it is made, and it’s never an attempt to predict the future as much as it’s a way to make sense of the present. This is not the same question as whether it has aged well, given how a film can be just as enjoyable as a period piece. In watching Logan’s Run, which was presented as a major Science-Fiction picture of its time, it’s hard to avoid thinking that movie Science Fiction has progressed a lot since then. Logan’s Run is such a … different … piece of work that it can barely be criticized according to today’s baselines. On one level, characters act like lobotomized idiots. On another, it’s hard to see where the intentional stylization ends and where the silliness begins. Watching it, it’s no wonder if most people thought that Science Fiction was dumb trash back then, because exemplar Logan’s Run is dumb trash. No wonder a lot of people hated SF at the time, one year before Star Wars. Silly costumes, social mores that make no sense, voluntarily stupid dialogue and twists that aren’t: Either our standards have dramatically increased, or the film was moronic from the get-go. (I suspect a lot of both.) Michael York and Jenny Agutter do what they can with what they’re given—watch for a short appearance by Farrah Fawcett midway through. This being said, I still think that Logan’s Run is worth a close and occasionally horrified look: The special effects are still intriguing, and the sense of pure strangeness today is to be cherished: It is a very seventies film. Watching it in French only adds to the experience by cranking up the strangeness even further.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) As I write this, it looks as if the Divergent series will never be completed on the big screen: Box-office results for the series (and Allegiant itself) were so bad given the end of the teenage-dystopia craze that plans are now to do the follow-up as a TV movie and/or TV series. For my reaction to this, imagine a tap dance on a grave: Hunger Games aside, the teen-dystopia crash could be seen well in advance by the generic nature of the copycats involved. Allegiant (which was consciously split from its ending in order to make two movies as bigger profits—funny how that didn’t turn out as expected) is an exemplary part of the trend in that it’s utterly forgettable. It blathers on and you don’t even need to pay attention to figure out the various familiar betrayals unfolding on-screen. It gets worse if you do pay attention, given that you can’t assume that the plot-holes dumb twists and unexplainable motivations have been addressed at some point. Shailene Woodley is reportedly dissatisfied that the series is going to TV and the only possible answer to that is along the lines of “boohoo, what did you expect?” She doesn’t even manage to get out of Allegiant with her dignity intact: only Miles Teller does that with a sarcastic character who seems to be as embarrassed as his actor to be stuck in there. No, there won’t be any tears shed about the Divergent series going to TV. I’ll even argue that it should have remained confined to YA books, and then quickly forgotten.
(On DVD, January 2017) I don’t think anyone was actively asking for a feature film reimagining of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, but Hollywood has seemingly taken aim at every other fairy tale out there, usually producing results far worse than Red Riding Hood. Helmed by Catherine Hardwicke (who also helmed Twilight—this will be relevant in a moment), this take on the classic fairy tale soon runs into a supernatural serial killer mystery set in a small village, with religious paranoia and shapeshifting lust as important plot drivers. There are a few good moments as the village is in near-panic mode. Elfin blonde Amanda Seyfried holds the lead and manages to acquit herself decently even when the material around her threatens self-parody. Gary Oldman shows up as a decent human antagonist, while Virginia Madsen has a too-small role as an imperfect mother. Visually, the film does have a few striking moments—showing the life of a small medieval village not as a drab misery, but a picturesque showcase. Red Riding Hood is borderline ridiculous at times (especially given the Twilight echoes as the werewolf romance becomes stronger—this is a pure Team Jacob film response) but it still manages to hold our attention. Having never been a teenage girl, I’m far from being the target audience for this film—so I’m inclined to be lenient toward Red Riding Hood and simply acknowledge that it achieves what it sets out to do.