(In French, On Cable TV, February 2017) “Utter and unmitigated trash” is a good starting point for discussing the low-budget sci-fi/action bunch of nonsense that is Universal Soldiers: The Return. Boldly presenting a story that has been done dozens of time before (i.e.; super-soldiers causing more trouble than they’re worth), this is a film that lurches from one ill-conceived sequence to the other, never straying too far from exploitation, familiar shootouts and that elusive but unmistakable stench of late-nineties bad action movies. An all-evil Artificial Intelligence is thrown into the mix for no other reason than “hey, why not?” The rest is just noise and flames and terminal boredom. Jean-Claude van Damme can’t save the mess, and neither can Kiana Tom nor Heidi Schanz as the female counterbalance to a testosterone-drenched film. It’s almost unbearably dull despite the explosions, shootouts, strip clubs and artificial intelligence working to enslave mankind (or something like that). It’s so bad that even the direct-to-video sequels ignored it. You might as well stay away.
(On DVD, February 2017) Boldly stepping back in time, Paranormal Activity 3 takes the found-footage conceit to the VHS era, presenting the formative childhood experiences of the sisters at the heart of the first two movies. Not stepping too far away from the tried-and-true methodology of the series so far, this follow-up does have a few canny new tricks up its sleeve. While some are obvious (the moment the oscillating camera is set up is the moment when we can anticipate the shocks it will deliver), the expansion of the mythology is also interesting, even though by the time the story wraps up we’re starting to predict how none of the male characters will make it out of the movie alive. On the other hand, that finale is quite a bit more intense than the quick bursts of violence at the end of the first two movies, so it feels as if the series is getting more ambitious with time. There really isn’t much else to say here. As usual for a film of this series, the acting is fair at best (although Lauren Bittner is probably the strongest lead of the series so far), the cinematography is muddy and the pacing is predictable. Still, despite the well-worn mechanics of the series premise, Paranormal Activity 3 is not a waste of time, and holds up enough new things to keep it interesting.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Some movies are unbearable because they a terrible. Others are unbearable because they’re arguably too good at what they do. We Need to Talk About Kevin falls squarely in the second category, as it explores the inner drama of a woman who has to live knowing that her son killed her husband and daughter, then went on a school massacre. She doesn’t even has the luxury of mourning, as the son is alive and in jail. Ostracized by her community, desperately alone, stuck in a miserable house after losing everything in civil suits, our heroine reflects on her life and how it led to such terrible events. Ping-ponging through twenty years of history, gradually revealing its disgusting secrets in a way that’s as depressing as it’s predictable, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror film disguised as heavy drama. Surprisingly enough, it works much better than expected: The editing between the various time periods is clear and the sheer competence of the execution manages to rehabilitate a core story that could have been seen as far too melodramatic. The sociopathy exhibited by Kevin is off-the-scale to a point where a less confident approach might have sent the entire film falling apart. But writer/director Lynne Ramsay keeps everything under control, and she can count on Tilda Swinton for a terrific performance in a difficult role. All of this makes We Need to Talk about Kevin remarkable to watch, but it also makes it the kind of film you never, ever want to see again. Sensible natures should be forewarned: This is a movie that works far too well at what it does.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) There’s a good-natured quality to A League of Their Own that makes it hard to dislike, but that doesn’t mean the film is a solid home run. As a look inside all-women baseball leagues during World War II, it manages to thread a fine line between social concern and outright entertainment. You do have to be a baseball-loving American to get the most out of it, though, as the script quickly takes the familiar route of making baseball a national prism rather than a simple sport. At least Geena Davis is a good lead, with able supporting performances from Tom Hanks (in an out-of-persona turn as a boozy has-been) and (believe it or not) Madonna back when she was trying to be taken seriously as an actor. Jon Lovitz also shows up in a surprisingly non-annoying role. Much of the story will feel familiar, but the epilogue stretches our affection for the film by trying too hard for instant nostalgia for characters we’ve barely met. Thanks to Penny Marshall’s no-nonsense direction, A League of their Own is an effective, basic movie. Not too challenging, not too dry—just good enough to leave everyone happy but not bowled over.
(On DVD, February 2017) I was a surprisingly vocal fan of the first Paranormal Activity (which I saw in theatres), yet couldn’t be bothered to keep track of the subsequent series. But a cheap series DVD anthology can work wonder at sharpening my resolve, and so it is that I’m now on my way to watch the entire series. In a way, the lengthy pause between seeing the first and second film may have worked to its advantage, given how closely Paranormal Activity 2 tries to ape and one-up its predecessor. The central conceit remains more or less untouched despite more complicated family dynamics, and the rhythm is more or less the same as well: a lengthy build-up with more and more paranormal activities occurring, all the way to a violent-and-abrupt conclusion. Paranormal Activity 2 certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and if “more of the same with a bigger budget” was the goal, then it’s been thoroughly accomplished. Not bad, not good, just the same thing once again.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Playing like the demented fever dream of a horny teenager discovering sex, swearing and atheist philosophy at once, Sausage Party definitely isn’t your average animated movie. Conceived by Seth Rogen, this movie takes a look at sentient supermarket food as they gradually realize that being chosen and put in the cart means that a horrible death awaits them. As a mad adult take on talking-objects movies, Sausage Party further amps the dose by going for all-out gross humour, featuring a near-constant debit of foul language, sexual references that skirt the NC-17 rating (and would definitely exceed it had it featured real humans) and violent matter. (Being eaten is, well, not for the faint of heart.) It’s almost amazing that respected notables such as Ed Norton and Salma Hayek would be game to voice the result, but there they are. The animation is of noticeably lower quality than the current state-of-the-art (there have been unpleasant reports about the working conditions in the studio that produced the film) but few will mind when the script takes such a centre stage. To its credit, Sausage Party does work: Beyond all the crude jokes and wearying accumulation of swearwords, the concept is clever, some jokes land well (I really liked the “Gum” character) and the ending goes for another conceptual breakthrough that sends off the film on a high note. For all of its juvenile energy, there is something vaguely audacious and subversive about Sausage Party—a form/function mash-up between a kind of movie typically aimed at kids to talk about adult matters of indoctrination and belief. DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT let younger kids see this film. Heck, don’t even let easily offended adults see it either. Still, in a predictable studio system that churns out big-budget formulas every week, there’s something endearingly anarchic and rebellious about Sausage Party that makes it stand out even in a crowded field. Much like a too-smart teenager trying out shock humour before settling down to more mature pursuits.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Movies about parenthood aren’t rare, but few of them can use situations and characters as rich as Captain Fantastic to make their points. As the movie begins, our protagonist is the father to six children, and they’re not home-schooled as much as they’re on a strict regimen designed to hone their physical and intellectual skills to perfection. Living deep in the woods, this is a family that is aggressively self-reliant, chasing down game for meat and using the evenings for impromptu music, political conversations and literary exploration. But where is the mom? Well, it turns out that the mother has committed suicide while hospitalized, and that event forces the family to rejoin civilization, even if temporarily. That’s when tensions rise, and some of the kids realize how poorly socialized they have been: Living by themselves in the wild is far less difficult than terrifying encounters with their peers. As idealism crashes into pragmatism, what will the family choose to do? Boasting a witty script, beautiful northwestern scenery and a terrific performance by Viggo Mortensen, writer/director Matt Ross delivers a comic drama that pokes at what it means to raise kids, and which values are most useful. The crash between idealism and pragmatism is cleverly explored and the movie gradually grows stronger, which wasn’t a given considering the high concept with which it starts. Captain Fantastic is clearly in the familiar mold of the indie comedies of the last few years (it’s practically branded as a Sundance film) but it earns its emotional beats honestly, and leaves plenty of thought-provoking material for parents.
(On TV, February 2017) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Lasse Hallström and Nicholas Sparks in Dear John. With those four names together, you almost don’t have to do anything else to describe the result. Of course, it’s going to be an overlong (Hallström) weepy romantic drama (Nicholas Sparks) featuring a sympathetic hunk (Tatum) and a likable petite blonde (Seyfried). Any other questions? Oh, sure, the point of those films is in the details and side characters such as Richard Jenkins’ autistic father, likable in a difficult role. It’s about the homespun wisdom that kind of works even as it’s melodramatic (“Now I have two small holes in me. I’m no longer in perfect condition.”) It’s about familiar dialogue and situations that allow viewers to immerse themselves in characters that could be just like them. It’s about knowing where the journey takes us and being comforted by it. It’s not about wit or originality or being challenged or reflecting on the anxious years following 9/11. It’s not about anything else but what you see on the tin. Dear John works at what it tries to be, but it doesn’t try to be very ambitious.
(On DVD, February 2017) So; what happens when you start watching a crime thriller and an existentialist drama breaks out? Watch Revolver to find out. The weight of expectations clearly runs against the film: This is a Guy Richie movie! Starring Jason Statham and Ray Liotta! Featuring high-powered criminals! How can it not be another Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel, Snatch or Rock-and-rolla? Well, it turns out that under the trappings of a crime thriller, Revolver wants to be something else. It messes with Kabbalistic symbols, deconstructs the inner psyche of a criminal, plays with components of the self, and, quite visibly, loses track of what it meant to do. Seeing Luc Besson’s name on the script is a warning more than a feature. Richie’s typically dynamic direction here feels disjointed if not actively unbalanced—the unreality of the heavily processed opening sequences eventually lead to the depiction of a mental breakdown as seen from the inside. It’s not pretty, and Revolver is equally remarkable for the way it’s willing to deglamorize strong actors. Statham has unflattering hair and an even worse dramatic arc, while Mark Strong has to contend with equally terrible hair and a surprisingly wimpy character. Self-important and pretentious to a fault, Revolver is an experience more than a film, and the right response at the end is something along the lines of a wary “okay…” Even the “reworked” American version barely works on the surface level of a crime thriller—and it’s exhausting enough that it discourages any attempt to go beyond the surface. I used to think that Swept Away was the worst thing that Madonna ever did to Richie (well, except for the pain of divorce, etc.) but Revolver has to be a close second.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) Featuring Mel Gibson in top-bruiser mode, Get the Gringo shows what can happen when an American career criminal gets caught in a Mexican jail. The place looks like a ghetto more than a prison, and much of the film’s fun is seeing the protagonist learn the system in order to exploit it. From the first smashing action sequence to the last comforting moment of the happy epilogue, Get the Gringo is a modest triumph of execution and sheer fun film-watching. As far as wry criminal thrillers go, it’s a success. Gibson is clearly the film’s anchor: he co-produced the film, his role is clearly heroic, his narration works well at making the film even more fun and the way he uses his persona here is quietly fascinating. This is the sarcastic self-assured Gibson: tough, funny, smart, threatening, knowledgeable and charming at once. It’s a kind of character that Gibson’s off-screen tabloid fodder actually enhances. As a comeback vehicle, it feels far better than 2010’s Edge of Darkness even if it’s less respectable. As a criminal action film with streaks of comedy, Get the Gringo gets full marks: it’s fun, fast and neatly wrapped up, feeling like a semi-sequel to 1999’s Payback. It’s a shame that its direct-to-video profile lowered its profile so much, but I see that’s gotten quite a bit of attention lately. It’s well worth its 90 minutes, especially for those who want to see Gibson at the top of his game, or are looking for a light-hearted crime thriller.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) Clint Eastwood isn’t a director associated with the supernatural, but with Hereafter he takes on a multi-strand story about communicating with the dead. Featuring an ensemble cast, this is a movie that goes around the world, asking questions and them wrapping up abruptly. There are quite a few things to like about it—the performances from actors such as Matt Damon as a blue-collar worker with an unwanted gift; Cecile de France as a woman whose life changes after a near-death experience; and the McLaren brothers as kids surviving a terrible childhood. Bryce Dallas Howard also shows up in a short but striking role. The way those stories, in four different countries, come to climax is satisfying, but the small-scale ending of the film is almost surprising, leaving plenty of questions unanswered. The opening sequence, depicting a tsunami in graphic detail, is unusually far more intense than the ending. It’s intriguing, satisfying in small moments, but not exceptionally fulfilling in total. The sum of the good moments doesn’t quite add up to a grand film and the result feels curiously muted. Too bad; at least it delivers small doses of interest.
(On DVD, February 2017) While I gather than Carlito’s Way was only a middling financial and critical success back in 1993, it’s one of those films that grow even better with time. I have a few theories as to why the decades have been kind to the movie. For one thing, I think it’s the kind of top-class crime thriller that were omnipresent for a while, and then not so much. So what if it’s similar to Scarface and The Untouchables? Those movies were awesome! In 2017, Carlito’s Way is a quasi-refreshing throwback to muscular crime cinema back when it was synonymous with A-class budgets rather than straight-to-video releases. It features Al Pacino in terrific younger form (sporting a glorious beard), which is best appreciated now rather than at a time when he was almost over-exposed. It benefits immensely from director Brian de Palma’ kinetic camera work, swooping and gliding into scenes, cackling as it prepares straight-up suspense sequences and delivers all of the cheap thrills that we can expect from a crime thriller. Carlito’s Way may not measure up to Scorcese, but it has strong thrills to deliver in an endearing exploitative way. David Koepp’s script cleverly packs a lot in a decent time, taking a look at a killer trying to get out of the business but predictably failing to do so. Sean Penn is almost unrecognizable (yet iconic, as per GTA: Vice City) as a completely crooked lawyer, while Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo and Luis Guzman turn in good supporting performances. (Pre-stardom Viggo Mortensen even shows up in a non-glamorous role as a disabled ex-gangster) It all adds up to a slick, enjoyable crime drama the likes of which we don’t see enough these days. Carlito’s Way has grown in stature over the past quarter-decade and a fresh look at it today only confirms that it’s a strong film.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I’m not sure why I’ve been slowly warming up to Amanda Seyfried lately, after years of comparing her to a Muppet. It may be that she’s paid her dues, got a few good roles, isn’t going anywhere, is aging gracefully in her unusual looks and even seems eager to poke fun at herself (such as in the otherwise woeful Ted 2) All of this makes her more sympathetic, even in movies from a while ago. So it is that, perhaps surprisingly, Seyfried becomes one of Letters to Juliet’s most noteworthy assets, a bright presence in an otherwise dull film. Despite the time-crossed lovers premise (i.e.: a young American writer helping an elderly British woman find a long-lost love in Italy) and the luminous cinematography, Letters to Juliet is immediately familiar in the rom-com mold—there’s little doubt where things are going even early on, and much of the movie becomes a demonstrative film rather than a suspenseful one. That’s largely why the last fifteen minutes are an exercise in frustration, as the film needlessly stretches out what should be over already. Still, the portrayal of the Italian countryside is good for a bit of vicarious sight-seeing, and the film’s pairs of romantic leads are good at what they’re supposed to do. It doesn’t amount to much more than a standard rom-com, but there are days when even an average rom-com is just what’s needed.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I gather that, at the time, seeing Steven Spielberg tackle a serious socially-conscious non-genre period drama such as The Color Purple project was a bit of a novelty. Of course, in retrospect it clearly shows the beginning of an important facet of Spielberg’s filmography all the way to Schindler’s List, Amistad and Lincoln. Has it held up in light of those latter examples? Yes and no. As hard as it can be to criticize a film denouncing injustice, there are times where The Color Purple gets, well, a bit too purple. Repeated scenes of abuse get tiresome, the film moves at languid pace (the victory lap epilogue alone feels as if it takes fifteen minutes) and as similar pictures has never gone out of fashion, I’m not sure the film feels as fresh today as it might have been back then. On the other hand, it is skillfully shot, expansively detailed and it features two terrific debut performances by none other than Oprah Whitney (in a non-too-complimentary role) and Whoopi Goldberg as the main much-abused protagonist. Danny Glover is also remarkable as a repellent antagonist. As for the rest, The Color Purple is about as far from Spielberg’s earlier work as it could be, even though it is thematically consistent with some of his later films—as an attempt to shatter perceptions about what we could do, it seems to have worked splendidly. As for the rest, the film does have a timeless nature—the depiction of the early twentieth century still looks credible, and had the film come out today, chances are that it would have done just as well in the Oscars sweepstake. Obviously best seen by people with an interest in period drama, The Color Purple may not be an easy watch, but it eventually proves its worth.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) It’s a good thing that Tom Hanks stars in A Hologram for the King, because I’m not sure that the film would have been as interesting with another actor. Bringing his everyday-man charm to a damaged character (a down-on-his-luck salesman with substantial familial, psychological and health issues) thrown in the weirdness of modern Saudi Arabia as he chases an important contract, Hanks shines even without meaning to do so. There are multiple obstacles in his way, from an unfamiliar culture to unhelpful receptionists to a big ball of guilt permeating his every action. Writer/director Tom Tykwer brings some welcome energy and visual polish to some sequences but otherwise delivers a far more conventional film than some of his best-known work. Other actors distinguish themselves in smaller roles: Alexander Black is frequently hilarious as the protagonist’s accidental companion, while Sidse Babett Knudsen is very likable as the first helpful person encountered by the hero, and Sarita Choudhury gets a great age-appropriate romantic role. A Hologram for the King plays well, especially during its early scenes, largely due to the attachment that viewers already have to Hanks’ screen persona. The accumulation of details about life in Saudi Arabia gives the film a manageable amount of strangeness, and by the time we understand that this will be a character study with a strong internal component, we’re already under the film’s unassuming charm. A Hologram for the King is certainly not without faults (some plotlines get resolved very quickly, some subplots feel easy, some moments feel implausible or too easy contrived) but it works well enough.