(On Cable TV, February 2017) I expected much, much worse from My Sister’s Keeper. On paper, it reads as the kind of weepy manipulative Hollywood drama that got satirized out of existence decades ago: a mixture of cancer-afflicted kids, precocious protagonists and ineffectual adults manipulated into melodramatic actions. On-screen, though, it’s not quite as bad … even though its nature as a tearjerker remains intact. Part of it has to do with good actors and small moments where the script doesn’t quite go as expected. I quite liked Alec Baldwin’s lawyer character, for instance, and the ways in which an entire movie’s worth of motivations is suggested for Joan Cusack’s judge character. Professionally directed by Nick Cassavetes (no stranger to weepies) from Jodi Picoult’s eponymous novel (apparently changed to much better effect), My Sister’s Keeper also benefits from a great performance by Abigail Breslin in the lead role, and a borderline-unlikable Cameron Diaz as the mother antagonist. But perhaps less identifiably, the film does have a good moment-to-moment watchability that can often doom less well-executed attempts on similar material. It remains a straight character drama, but one put together with some skill. And that makes all the difference between something that sounds terrible, and something that’s engaging.
(Video on-Demand, February 2017) I expect that we’ll continue to talk about Edward Snowden and whether he’s a hero or villain for a long while: Snowden is young, and currently being used as a pawn in geopolitical games … his place in history hasn’t been finalized yet. (I said the same three years ago about Julian Assange in the context of The Fifth Estate, and my opinion of Assange today is strikingly different than what it was back then—people’s lives aren’t limited to a single act.) Still, it takes someone like Oliver Stone to boldly delve into events barely more than three years old and try to come to some kind of a conclusion. As a look at Snowden-the-man, the film is definitely on its subject’s side: He’s shown as a disappointed idealist, a patriot whose opinions eventually diverge from the system he’s been asked to serve. Technical wizard, sympathetic boyfriend, fugitive of circumstances: Snowden is all of those and the film creates a clean dramatic arc for him as he’s invited at the centre of the American Intelligence Community and comes to dislike what he sees. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very good as Snowden, incarnating a real-life subject to the point where the film can afford to feature the real Snowden showing up in the film’s coda. It’s also kind of amazing to see Zachary Quinto and Melissa Leo play real people that we can recognize (respectively: Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras). Stone’s direction is assured, and his script manages to make a complex subject matter accessible even to non-specialists: As an exploration of IT security matters, Snowden is better than most similar films, with acceptable deviations from reality as we know it now. (It’s also, crucially, consistent with Citizenfour.) It’s relatively entertaining, although not without a few lengthier sections and some overly dramatic moments. Snowden is not quite as visually daring as The Fifth Estate (nor is Snowden as fascinating/infuriating as Assange), but it’s a more controlled film, and one that, I suspect, will stand the test of time quite a bit better. But that will depend quite a bit on what happens to Snowden next…
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The current crop of fantasy films seems hell-bent on proving that even wall-to-wall special effects can’t ensure a film that will be remembered once the end credits roll. I’ve had issues in the past with trying to write reviews of dull fantasy movies weeks after seeing the movie, but with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, I’m not taking any chances: I’m writing this the lunchtime after, because the longer I wait the less I’m going to remember any of it. It’s dull enough that I even have problems the day after. Once again, the fairy-tale inspiration has been squished through the Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting machine to produce extruded product clearly more inspired by past movies than by any kind of personal statement. This wholly unnecessary sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman completely evacuates Snow White (other than a few bogeyman-like references) to focus on the Huntsman as he’s thrown into another adventure involving the Evil Queen’s sister. Or something like that. As I said; it’s not a good movie, and it can’t even manage to be a memorable one. I think it’s slightly better than the original, but that’s by the sole virtue of not having Kirsten Stewart anywhere near the screen. Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth are back and they’re generally tolerable. Emily Blunt is (hilariously enough) being asked to play the more-evil-than-evil sister and the result is as unconvincing as it is disappointing. More hilariously, Jessica Chastain shows up in a skintight black leather suite to play an elite medieval assassin and that ends up being the most visually spectacular aspect of a film crammed with computer effects from beginning to end. While director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan tries his best to keep the film propped up, he can’t do much with the incoherent script that stumbles from a prequel to the sequel to the first film and never quite figures out whether it wants to be a follow-up, a Snow-Queen influenced sideshow or its own thing about love and other meaningless blather. It’s profoundly uninteresting despite the occasionally good visuals and it pretty much autodestructs upon viewing. It’s films like The Huntsman: Winter’s War that not give the fantasy genre a bad name—how about we drop the special effects and get back to an actual sense of wonder instead?
(On TV, February 2016) I have never played golf and I’m sure it’s a nice excuse to go for a walk, but the lengths through which The Legend of Bagger Vance goes to add a layer of mysticism to hitting a gold ball would be impressive if they weren’t faintly ridiculous. A very young Matt Damon stars as a golf prodigy damaged by his WWI experiences and recapturing his groove during a crucial tournament. Will Smith shows up as the exemplar of the so-called “Magical Negro” trope but makes it an endearing role through folksy sayings and unaffected demeanour. Charlize Theron has a decent role as a woman trying to save her father’s gold club from closing down and at least looks the part of a southern aristocrat down to the garter belt and stockings. Other than that, and notwithstanding the magical titular character, The Legend of Bagger Vance is very much a standard underdog sports drama, ending with just enough success to feel like a victory. It does feature of lot of material in which golf becomes a proxy for genteel life philosophy. Director Robert Redford is going for a quiet period film and does manage to feature some lush scenery along the way. But the result, for some reason, seems aimed squarely at those middle-aged (and older) men trying to rationalize their love of the game to whoever will listen. No wonder I caught the movie as it was playing on the Golf Channel!
(On Cable TV, February 2016) It’s movies like The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps that have me wondering whether I’m an unsuspecting alien having trouble understanding humanity. The story of the film has something to do about a scientist inventing a rejuvenating elixir, but never mind the plot: the point of the film is in showing Eddie Murphy plays half a dozen different roles in the same film, even often in the same frame. It doesn’t get more grotesque than seeing Murphy as an elderly woman sexually assaulting Murphy as himself. Oh, wait, it does get more grotesque when a character gets violated by an enlarged sex-crazed hamster. Bestiality and sodomy at once in a kid’s movie—just another day in Hollywood. I’m not saying that The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps is completely bereft of laughs. One or two jokes succeed, and seeing Janet Jackson struggle in such a terrible film almost earns her a sympathy chuckle. The anarchic plot is just a clothesline on which to hang unfunny sketches, and while Murphy occasionally hits a high note, the rest of the film feels too gross to be likable or even tolerable. Never mind my doubts about whether I’m human: The film sinks so low that I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers behind the movie themselves were aliens with only a shaky understanding of human nature.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The best way to make a low-budget film is to reduce the number of characters and location, and suggest a lot of things happening out-of-frame. Air seems to take this intention to the limit with a cast of four real characters (plus a few voices and TV appearances), taking place in a 1970s-style bunker and darkened corridors. Through effective exposition, it sets up a world in which the air has been poisoned and a few hundred survivors have been cryogenically preserved in underground installations. Two workers are periodically wakened from their slumber to check the quality of the air and perform routine maintenance on the installations. After a predictably dull start, things quickly boil up when the equipment is damaged, a bad case of bunker fever settles in and the characters decide to go check what’s happening in a nearby bunker. The reduced cast allows for bigger names, and so Djimon Hounsou, Norman Reedus and Sandrine Holt are the stars of the film. Despite a reasonably good premise, the film eventually bogs down in a series of repetitive scenes in which two men threaten each other with guns and run through a deserted installation. It ends pretty much as expected, although the coda is quite good in its own way. Air may be remarkable more for the way it uses a small budget to deliver a claustrophobic tale of men contemplating the extinction of humanity and wondering what they’re doing is merely prolonging the inevitable. It definitely has its limits otherwise, but it does by decently as long as you accept its budget-driven premise.
(On DVD, February 2016) Ambitious but flawed, Narcopolis thinks big but can’t quite reconcile the two SF plot devices that it plays with. From an enigmatic opening to the film’s first half-hour, we’re stuck in a monothematic future in which drugs have been legalized for a while but no one can shut up about it: Every conversation is about drugs and their impact. It gets tiresome. Then Narcopolis goes crazy and takes on a different SF trope, or rather reveals what else was lurking in the background of its plot the whole time. The link between the two isn’t particularly effective, and the limits of Narcopolis’s budget prevent it from delivering a more fully realized vision of its story. This being said, there are a few good things here and there—more notably, Narcopolis doesn’t use its budget as an excuse to lock itself up in a single set with a handful of characters. But writer/director Justin Trefgarne doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with SF devices: he underscores some hints so much that they end up spoiling some would-be mysteries, and ends up being so on-the-nose in the last third of the film that what should have been a thrilling build-up and denouement ends up being a walk through predictable plot points. Coupled with the insistent world building in the first third, it makes for a Science Fiction film that doesn’t quite have the self-confidence to express itself fluently within the genre. That lack of fluidity definitely impacts the end result, which remains more promising than successful.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) With Inferno, Tom Hanks is back for a third largely indifferent time as Robert Langdon, one of his career’s most undistinguished roles. One can’t fault Hank for teaming up with Ron Howard in adapting one of the most high-profile thriller series of the century so far … but the problem with Langdon is that he’s a character fully fleshed out by Hanks alone. There’s little on the page (either the book or the script) to make Langdon anything more than a fountain of information and a mannequin running through a convoluted plot. In the absence of such niceties, we’re left to rely on Tom Hanks, all-around American good guy, to give life to the series. To their credit, the filmmakers behind Inferno wisely dispensed with the most infuriating element of the novel’s conclusion, although they didn’t soften the moronic overpopulation rationale. The plot is ludicrous and the historical trivia is generally unremarkable, but the film does its best to wring a few honest moments of suspense from the result. I do believe that the film is an improvement over the borderline-unlikable book, but that’s not much of a baseline to begin with. (Inferno is the novel that finally made me give up on Dan Brown after being a bit of a contrarian cheerleader for him in post-The Da Vinci Code times.) You can argue that the story is more interesting than the previous two Langdon movies, but the freshness of the symbologist-as-hero premise has faded almost entirely. The result is average without dipping into mediocrity, which would have been a real danger at this point in the series. This being said, this is no call for a sequel. Let Hanks do something else.
(On DVD, February 2016) The first Jeepers Creepers surprised me a bit by its genre savvy and its ability to play with familiar tropes, and the best thing I can say about Jeepers Creeper II is that it’s almost as good as its predecessors at playing with familiar expectations. Largely set on a school bus under attack by a fantastic creature, this sequel milks its premise for all it’s worth, cleverly pacing its action to spend an unlikely amount of time on a deserted rural road. (That bus truly gets trashed by the end of the movie!) While much of the material is generally familiar, writer/director Victor Salva wrings some decent thrills out of his premise. While Jeepers Creepers II doesn’t manage to escape its “invulnerable creature” nature (it does eventually become exasperating to see the creature survive what should have been mortal wounds), it effectively plays within that sandbox and delivers the thrills that anyone could expect from a horror sequel. Heck, even Justin Long has a small cameo in the movie.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The good news, I suppose, is that while The Conjuring 2 is significantly less impressive than its predecessor, the first film was so good that it makes its sequel a fair horror movie rather than a great one. Moving the action in England but keeping the first film’s focus on a family, our likable married heroes and a gradual cranking up of the tension (although the original’s lack of gore is instantly exceeded by a very violent opening dream sequence), The Conjuring 2 is more of the same, but less surprisingly so. Director James Wan is the star here, expertly moving the camera to show (or not show) elements crucial to the tension. The London-set poor-neighborhood is less inspiring than the first film’s farmhouse, and the broken family not quite as likable either, but you can see the script going back to the first film’s strengths whenever it needs a boost. The result may be far more ordinary, but at least it avoids sinking into exploitation or nihilism like so many other horror movies—there’s a core of sheer decency to the single mom trying to keep her family together and the heroic Warren couple (Both Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are likable actors, and the Elvis scenes take their screen relationship to another level of sympathy), and it’s that kind of “this is why horrors are worth fighting” spirit that is all too often missing from cheap horror. This being said, while I was a vocal proponent of The Conjuring, I don’t expect to advocate for this sequel as much—it’s less of a surprise, of course, but it also looks as if it has a built-in public. I’m sure we’ll see a third film soon enough.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) Even by the standards of Oscar-baiting historical docu-fiction, Genius seems tame and detached. It’s a problem that can’t be blamed on the actors—Colin Firth is good as legendary editor Max Perkins, while Jude Law is suitably unhinged as Tom Wolfe. Nicole Kidman is more disappointing as Wolfe’s one-time wife, but it’s not much of a role—and she gets to point a gun at the protagonist in the film’s most incongruous scene. The plot loosely talks about the working collaboration and tortuous friendship between Perkins and Wolfe over a period of a decade (two years go by in a blink during a montage) as they argue about Wolfe’s novels and the writer’s mercurial personality eventually leads him to paranoia. All well and good; as someone who’s fond of movies about writers; I particularly appreciated the editing humour and portrait of books as works to be rewritten rather than completed once THE END is first typed. Still, I could help but find the film long and meandering. Viewers may struggle to remain interested, and the film doesn’t help by taking occasional lengthy breaks in plotting. While well shot, with a convincing recreation of 1920s New York, Genius is a disappointment considering its source material. I’m glad it exists (what are the odds of seeing another major movie featuring a book editor as a hero?), but it could and should have been better.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I’m not that much of a Ghostbusters (1984) fan, so the news of a gender-swapped reboot didn’t trouble me much beyond my usual “eh, I’d much prefer if they did original movies”. The reactionary nerd rage at the film’s release was troubling insofar as was a reflection of the current unhealthy outrage culture—but let’s face it: people who get worked up about a female Ghostbusters movie are exactly the kinds of people who wake up every day being offended at anything that makes them uncomfortable. Given the track records of movie reboots, it was almost a given that the end result would be a mildly entertaining piece of fluff. So it is: This Ghostbusters (2016) is a technically accomplished but far more mechanistic version of the 1984 original. Both Kirsten Wiig and Melissa McCarthy play up to their persona in the movie, although McCarthy seems thankfully more restrained in a movie in which entire sequences are storyboarded for special effects. Wiig is up to her usual neurotic persona, which works relatively well here. The same can be said for Leslie Jones, likable in a stock role. The real surprise here, though, is Kate McKinnon, stealing nearly every scene as an eccentric scientist—again, it’s not an original character, but she makes it work. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth probably gets the biggest laughs as a scatterbrained hunk. Director Paul Feig keeps getting better every movie, and if his style is still generally bland, he’s able to keep up with the demands of a special-effects-driven production. His conscious decision to avoid glamorizing his character works well, even if some other intentions—such as limply incorporating original 1984 cast members—end up being more irritating than anything else. The upshot is a generally watchable film, even if it never steps too far away from the original film or from the basic special-effects-driven comedy template. This Ghostbusters is all surface and flash, with minimal character work and even shallower thematic concerns. It’ll do for an evening’s worth of entertainment, but I have a hunch that the original will remain the definitive edition.
(In French, On TV, February 2017) Maybe I’m seeing the wrong movies, but it seems to me that the large-scale adventure film is a lost art in Hollywood. Those seas of extras, trips through treacherous remote locations and against-all-odds stories seem to belong to another time. Maybe that’s for the best, considering the iffy colonial content of The Man Who Would be King. It’s one thing for noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling (a man of his time, and I’ll be forever grateful for The Jungle Book) to write a cautionary tale about two British soldiers becoming god-emperors in a forgotten part of the world; it’s quite another to see this story today through post-colonial lenses. The Man Who Would Be King does have the considerable benefit of a decent third act in which the so-called civilized men are punished for their hubris, but much of the film’s first hour plays uncomfortably, as white men scheme their way to an empire. Still, as a white guy, I have the implicit privilege of being able to picture myself in the lead role, and once I manage to do that, what’s not to like? Michael Caine and Sean Connery together in a single movie, with Connery sporting glorious handlebar facial hair! Shakira Caine (Michael’s wife) in a pivotal role! Christopher Plummer playing Kipling himself! The film does get substantially more interesting in the third act as the façade of the white men’s deception falls away with real consequences. The ending is very good and justifies the framing device. John Huston’s direction is clean and makes the most of the means available to pre-CGI filmmakers. With a scope and sweep that defies even modern films, The Man Who Would Be King is remarkable even today, and the slight discomfort that the first three-quarter of the film may cause to a modern audience is more than redeemed by a conclusion that must have been sobering even to the original short story’s Victorian readers.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) By this point in video-game history, we shouldn’t be surprised when gaming tropes make it to the movies, or even end up being their premise entirely. The Call Up doesn’t waste any time in making it clear that this is a gamer’s film: As a bunch of strangers sign up for a virtual reality game, they’re astonished to find out that they’ve been equipped with the latest in VR technology, and the audience isn’t really surprised to soon find out that when the die in the game they (all together now, and gasp:) die in real life too. You can fit the plot of the film on a small napkin and still have enough space to wipe your mouth, and that does eventually become a problem when the dull-as-dirt ending comes along. But there are a few things worth noticing about The Call Up: The opening credit sequence is visually interesting, the special effects are cheap but plentiful and there is some clever interplay between the “real” world (a clean but empty office building) and the “game” world (a dirtied up post-apocalyptic version of the same building) as the players switch between one and the other. The actors aren’t worth mentioning, but writer/director Charles Barker is quite a bit better as a director—he stretches the limits of his budget and keeps things moving through kinetic rhythm, which is more than can be said about the forgettable and unsatisfying script. At worst, The Call Up feels pointless and hence sadistic in the way it kills off its characters. At best, it’s a competent low-budget action film that has fun playing with gaming tropes within a movie. I suspect the film will work a bit better for gamers and those with a tolerance for low-budget Science Fiction.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) This is my fourth low-budget independent time-travel SF thriller in a week, but it turns out that Paradox can hold its own against similar films. It’s not, to be blunt, a good movie. The dialogue is often awkward, the acting isn’t much better (one actor tasked with playing the comic relief doesn’t quite get how to do it and nearly every line of his falls flat as a result—on the other hand, Zoe Bell seems better than ever here), the special effects look cheap, the gore is over-the-top and some climactic elements are needlessly puzzling. But on the flip side, Paradox treats viewers with a coherent future-time-travel closed loop, a decent mash-up of time-travel tropes, some moments of comedy, decent tension and a finale that does wrap things up satisfyingly once you’re willing to play along. It also features one of the funniest exposition scenes in recent memory: “And then, well, then he’s Schrodinger’s cat. Crippled and not crippled at the same time. Except not that. ¶ Is that the best you can do?” Plus, Paradox plays games with the notion of a viewpoint protagonist, something that becomes a big part of the ending. (See “puzzling” above, but also “satisfyingly”.) As a calling card for writer/director Michael Hurst, this is likely to get him quite a bit of attention, especially in the way he milks his budget to good effect. This film will work better on dedicated SF fans willing to cut some slack given budget limitations. In retrospect, I probably enjoyed it more because it was my fourth low-budget independent time-travel SF thriller in a week—I had more appropriate expectations, and the ways Paradox zigzagged with familiar tropes felt like a refreshing approach. Few people have seen this film, and that’s too bad—as a brainteaser, it’s quite a bit better than most big-budget studio films. Heck, I’d like to see a remake.