(On Cable TV, March 2017) Back when Meg Ryan reigned supreme as America’s Sweetheart, the idea of pairing her with American Everyman Tom Hanks seemed like a natural fit, and why not? Seeing Sleepless in Seattle, the result speaks for itself. Unusually structured (the two main characters barely meet for much of the movie) but successful thanks to some wit along the way, the film doesn’t revolutionize anything as much as it shows two actors at the top of their game. A lot of it feels like filler, as befits a narrative that holds back reunion for a climax—there’s some back-and-forth about Ryan’s character “settling” for a comfortable life that feels particularly dragged-out. Still, Sleepless in Seattle remains a bit unusual even twenty-five years later. Some of the father/son dialogue is clever, and the way the film moves forward is almost enough to sidestep how contrived it is. Relying on tired clichés about true love, love at first sight and soulmates destined to meet, it’s not a particularly inspiring movie, but the charm of the two lead actors somewhat compensate for a manufactured hollow core. It’s squarely within the confine of the romantic comedy subgenre, but Sleepless in Seattle does play well with familiar elements, and casts them in sufficiently unusual situations that it almost feels fresh again.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting The Princess Bride: I had such good memories of the film that I feared seeing it again would damage the magic. Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: The good parts of The Princess Bride are still as good today, and I had managed to forget much of the less-quoted second half of the film. Penned by William Goldman (from his own equally hilarious novel), the script manages to be self-aware, witty, clever and warm at once—the pedestrian direction is low on flashy moments, but clearly doesn’t get in the way of the script. It helps that the actors are almost all perfect for their role: André the Giant may not be a gifted thespian, but he’s just right for his character, and the same goes for most of the cast. Cary Elwes is a B-grade actor at best, but he’s fantastic here as the hero. Robin Wright Penn has the advantage of perfectly incarnating how a princess should look and behave, while Wallace Shawn remains forever linked to his distinctive role as Vizzini. If anything, The Princess Bride is even funnier now that the codes and tropes of fantasy and fairy tales have been widely internalized, and as Hollywood is still churning out remakes of known fairy-tales into unremarkable fantasy epics. It’s a light and funny film, but it’s certainly not simple-minded or content with superficiality. It’s still great even now. See it again with a member of a younger generation to pass the fun along.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Much has been said about the rom-com and its demise, but there’s still a vein of opportunity in talking about the 2010–2016 wave of romantic dramas adapted from novels. How they feature damaged protagonists, look like comedies while behaving like dramas, take place over lengthy spans of time, and often kill their love interest. One Day, Love, Rosie, Stuck in Love, Dear John … although if we bring in Nicholas Sparks, we’ll be here all day. Me Before You fits squarely in this sub-genre, as a young free-spirited woman comes to care for a disabled suicidal quasi-aristocrat. Unconventional romance soon blooms, but we know it’s not going to have a conventionally happy ending. No surprises, but what about the execution? Here, unfortunately, Me Before You only manages an average score. While there are a few odd pearls in the result, much of it is played very obviously with few delights along the way. This is probably the best performance I’ve seen from Emilia Clarke, but it’s still not much more than okay—although there is a good rapport between her and male lead Sam Claflin. Pretty much everything else about the film is solid mediocrity, good enough to keep the worst criticism at bay, but nowhere near enough to make this interesting. The finale aims for a big bath of tears and settles for “yeah, we’ve seen this coming for the past hour or so.” There’s been quite a few better movies even in the recent rom-dram subgenre. There’s no need to go out of your way to see Me Before You.
(On DVD, March 2017) You would think that after twenty-five years, so-called “revisionism” would be absorbed, normalized, taken as granted and disappear into the background of a changed genre. But as Unforgiven continues to prove even today, revisionism can be an evergreen state of mind. Even now, the film’s treatment of violence in its western setting still rings as faintly blasphemous. As hurt women put a bounty on the head of an aggressor, as greedy killers converge on a town where the sheriff won’t tolerate guns carried by strangers, as a stained hero picks up his weapons in order to keep the family farm afloat, Unforgiven still has something special to offer. It plays with the codes of heroism (few characters are either all-good or all-bad), undermines who should be sympathetic and seems almost aghast when excessive violence does resolve problems. What makes it even more interesting is seeing Clint Eastwood take on the project both as a director and as a star—there’s a finality to his performance that stands as his closing statement on the genre. (This being said, this wouldn’t be the last time Eastwood would puncture his own myth—Grand Torino also has a few things to say about the toxicity of violence as he himself portrayed in a string of earlier movies.) Eastwood is terrific as a retired gunman reluctantly picking up his guns (and being thrown off his horse a few times for his troubles), while Morgan Freeman shows up in a rougher role than usual. Gene Hackman makes for a credible antagonist, unlikable although not purely evil in his goals of pacifying the Wild West by all means necessary. The result is absorbing even for viewers without natural or national affinities for the Western as a genre—Unforgiven manages to escape the western to become a great film of its own.
(Video on-Demand, March 2017) Given Marvel Studio’s accumulating success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they now find themselves both freed to try new things, and doomed to refresh their formula before it become stale. Doctor Strange certainly shows how they tread the line, as it introduces yet another character, but in a realm far … stranger than the consensually rational universe of most of the non-Thor series so far. The paradox with Doctor Strange is that it’s narratively interesting at its basic character-driven level (which is to say: a gifted surgeon trying to regain his abilities after a terrible accident) and visually fascinating when it throws the rules of reality outside the window in time from some spectacular action sequences, but there’s a big mushy intermediate step in-between that’s almost unbearably dull. But such is the trouble with otherworldly fantasy: In between the characters and the cool sequences, there’s often a stultifying accumulation of bad-guy names, dull plots to enslave the Earth and other assorted generic material from the genre fantasy playbook. Doctor Strange succumbs to that issue, but can still fortunately rely on enough special effects to remain afloat. Benedict Cumberbatch may not be playing a role very much outside his established persona (it’s why he was cast, after all), but he’s compelling enough—and so is Tilda Swinton as an ethereal sorceress. Then there’s the work from Industrial Light and Magic, conjuring an Escheresque nightmare of an urban landscape folding upon itself during an action sequence. Doctor Strange is worth seeing for either (or both) of those reasons, but don’t be surprised to wish for the film to move faster during the rest of it—we know the origin stories by now, and the galactic-threat ones … it’s time for something else.
(In French, In theatres, March 2017) I don’t expect that many people will ever see the Franco-Canadian animated film Ballerina, and that’s too bad: While it’s a bit clunky, predictable and suffers from the limits of its budget and/or skillset, it’s a charming look at the world of ballet for kids, a rousing adventure and an inspiring you-can-do-it motivator. Featuring a young orphan girl dreaming of escaping her provincial orphanage to dance in Paris, Ballerina manages to make us believe in how a gifted but untrained girl could develop as a ballerina in a few days. (Meanwhile, her male friend is up to some engineering shenanigans in the shadow of Gustave Eiffel’s work.) The best moments in Ballerina come as we’re given an entertaining glimpse into the world of ballet, as our heroine is tutored by a grumpy ex-dancer. Despite the film’s occasionally stiff character animation (especially in the early sequences), those sequences flow well and show some cinematic joy. The ending sequence is also cleverly balanced between action and dance, making us temporarily forget about the kids-grade plot cheats required to get there. The jukebox selection of modern pop songs is occasionally baffling, but then again the movie does play to its audience. Nonetheless, Ballerina is a likable film, and one that should have a much better fate as an on-demand offering than in theatres. At the very least, it’s a must-see in the vicinity of little girls with an interest in ballet.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) I remember seeing The Karate Kid as a kid, being entertained for most of it but mystified at some sequences such as the spaghetti-spill. Seeing the film in middle age makes for a different experience—the theme of surrogate fatherhood seems more obvious now, and the spaghetti spilling now makes perfect sense in a “when everything goes wrong…” sense. Surprisingly enough, my middle-age jadedness also leads to a better appreciation of the formula at the heart of the script. There is little that’s new or revolutionary about The Karate Kid (although the interracial component of the main relationship still remains almost unusual today), but it is exceptionally well-executed, with numerous telling details that help ground the film in reality … and still make for cultural references even thirty years later. Noriyuki “Pat” Morita is terrific as the older man taking our teenage protagonist under his care (the script even allowing him a few moments of ornery frustration), while Ralph Macchio is unpolished but likable in the lead role. The Karate Kid isn’t a perfect film—it ends far too soon without the luxury of a coda in which to enjoy its triumph, occasionally zigs and zags without control and often veers into overplayed on-the-nose moments. But it’s well-balanced, and strong enough in its assets to overcome its imperfections. No wonder it’s still relatively popular even today.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) Clint Eastwood hasn’t done many comedies in his career, and Every Which Way But Loose may help explain why. While an undeniable popular (if not critical) success at the time, it’s a film that now feels almost humorless despite clear attempts at being funny. Eastwood himself barely cracks a smile, a joke or anything looking like self-deprecation in a movie where he’s asked to plays a brawler tracking down an unwilling love interest from Los Angeles to Denver. (A premise that has its own set of problems…) Among the film’s many distinctions is how it takes place in blue-collar settings halfway between cowboys and truckers, refuses to give its hero what he wants, and remains almost laugh-free even as it plays with big comic targets: yes, this is the film where Eastwood pals around with an orangutan and punches neo-Nazis in the face. The episodic structure does the film no favours, and the seriousness through which the comedy is approached doesn’t lead to extra laughs either. As an anthropological look in the working-class seventies, Every Which Way But Loose is mildly interesting … but as a look at one of the top-grossing films of the time, it’s more mystifying than anything else. Apparently there’s a sequel that closes the loop on some of the film’s most distinctive aspects…
(On TV, March 2017) Body-swapping comedies are a weird enough subgenre, but gender-swapping comedies featuring Rob Schneider are all the way out there between “gross” and “really?” Still, there are a few surprises in this fifteen-year-old film—most notably seeing Rachel MacAdams (two years before her Mean Girls/Notebook breakthrough) slumming it up in the lead role as a popular high school girl who unwillingly swaps bodies with an older male petty criminal. McAdams is good, and so is Anna Faris in a supporting role … even though the rest of the film is almost unbearably dumb. I say almost because, for all of its sins, The Hot Chick can’t help but explore a bit of the gender-bending queerness (in the best sense of the word) that its premise would suggest. Those fleeting moments almost make The Hot Chick interesting on its own terms. Still, much of the movie clearly shows its Happy Madison lineage—at the time, Schneider was perhaps at the height of his fame as a comedian, and he didn’t get there by being clever or refined. Unbearable at times, almost interesting at others, The Hot Chick is perhaps best seen today as an early film for people who then did better … or faded away like Schneider.
(On DVD, March 2017) I’m as surprised as anyone else by the fact that I still like the Paranormal Activity series even at its fifth instalment, long after nearly everyone else has given up on it. The Marked Ones, to be fair, consciously sets out to do something different with the premise: Largely set within the Los Angeles Latino community, it features two characters held at arms-length from the events of the first four movies, and plays with the mythology in entertaining ways that nonetheless destroy any hope that it will all hang together in the end. But never mind: The Marked Ones is far more interesting when it spends time with its teenage protagonist, balancing joy and horror as his life is thrown upside down. Far more YouTubeish than the previous entries in the series, The Marked Ones nonetheless manages to be relatively fun, especially as a fifth entry in the series. The cultural context makes it more interesting than others (at least to me, given that I’m not exposed to the Californian Latino culture very much) and while the answers of the series aren’t coming, at least there are a few good set-pieces along the way.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) I will reluctantly concede a certain audacity in drafting a follow-up to Independence Day twenty years after the first film. In positing a fictional universe advanced by twenty years of international co-operation and repurposed alien technology, Resurgence takes us in relatively new territory as far as alien invasion films are concerned: As much science fictional on the human side as the alien side, rebalancing the usual power dynamics of the situation. Unfortunately, this ends up being largely window-dressing for bigger action sequences: the lunar tripwire gets ripped quickly, and it doesn’t stop a spectacular disaster sequence from picking up Abu Dhabi and dropping it on London (no, really). Twenty years later, advances in special effects technology do look like alien technology to 1996 state-of-the-art, and if Resurgence definitely has something going for it, it’s the quality of its special effects. As anyone would have anticipated, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the film is as good. While the script does acknowledge its own absurdity (“They do go for landmarks”, says Jeff Goldblum as famous monuments are destroyed), it doesn’t quite manage to build an interesting cast of characters, nor take us on a steadily engrossing adventure. In fact, the fan-service calling back the first movie does get annoying at time, hampering the film from managing something better than another battle on the desert flats. Among the cast, Jeff Goldblum is very enjoyable as an older but just as cynical version of his character in the first film, William Fichtner is exactly what’s needed as a solid military figure, Maika Monroe almost makes us forget that she’s taking over Mae Whitman’s role. Will Smith is sorely missed, with no one quite managing to step up as a replacement. As a catastrophe movie, the large-scale destruction is what director Roland Emmerich usually does best, and so Resurgence at least delivers on those expectations. Still, it does have enough promising elements to be disappointing in the way it puts them all together. There may or may not be another sequel, but the movie works hard at ensuring that we wouldn’t care one way or the other.
(Video On-Demand, March 2017) Director Tom Ford’s second feature is often just as controlled as his previous A Single Man, but it doesn’t quite manage to fully exploit the material at its disposal. Amy Adams is her usually remarkable self as an art gallery manager absorbed by her ex-husband’s roman à clef—thanks to some clever cinematography and dark clothes, her head often floats alone on-screen, focusing our attention on a role with a complex inner component. Told non-linearly while hopping in-between a base reality and fiction, Nocturnal Animals is happy to remain enigmatic even when dealing with terrible events. The novel-in-a-film is about gruesome murder, vengeance and a man losing everything. But what I did not expect to find here is as good a movie portrayal as I’ve seen of the reader’s experience with a great book: the way we get hooked in lengthy reading sessions, the abrupt transition from book to real life, the way the fiction bleeds into reality… I’m not sure any movie has quite shown it like Nocturnal Animal. This, paradoxically, makes the rest of it weaker, especially when it becomes obvious that reality and fiction are meant to interact and reflect upon each other (what a great idea to have Isla Fisher play Amy Adams’ fictional counterpart): the conclusion seems to hold its punches, and seems limp in comparison to what precedes it. Otherwise, we do get great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and a pleasantly gritty Michael Shannon as a doomed policeman. Add to that the terrific cinematography and Nocturnal Animals gets a marginal recommendation—with the caveat that it doesn’t all click as well as it should.
(On Cable TV, March 2017) The latest resurgence in R-rated comedies has led to good, bad and indifferent results, with Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ranking near the middle of the pack. The premise certainly seems optimized for comedy, what with two fratboy-type protagonists openly advertising for dates in order to attend their sister’s Hawaiian wedding. Things get even funnier when they’re targeted by opportunistic bad girls looking for an easy holiday. Copious swearing, risqué situations, some comic violence (but no graphic nudity, given the profile of the stars) ensue, with plenty of hair-raising moments before the suitably sweet conclusion. It’s all adequate without being impressive, although there are some highlights along the way. While Zac Efron and Adam DeVine are fine as the male anchors, it’s Anna Kendrick and especially Aubrey Plaza who get the most interesting roles as bad girls trying to look like angels. Kendrick is her usual cute self even when cursing up a storm, but Plaza succeeds by doubling down on the character she played in Bad Grandpa and so scores one of her best roles to date. The rest is scenery, with the Hawaii location used effectively—you’d be able to pair this film with Forgetting Sarah Marshall without too much dissonance. This being said, the actors and sets are better than the film itself, which lasts just as long as it takes to entertain but no longer.
(On DVD, March 2017) If you had been waiting for a true sequel to the first Paranormal Activity, then this fourth instalment almost delivers it. Fittingly enough for a series with a mythology as chaotic as this one, Paranormal Activity 4 picks up five years after the first one, through the viewpoint of a teenage girl who starts noticing strange things in her neighborhood. A murderous convent obviously show up in time, but not before a strange young boy and a ghostly presence. Paced more aggressively than its predecessors (with plenty of spooky moments throughout), this fourth instalment also feels a bit tighter. The use of webcams and a Kinect feels inspired, while Kathryn Newton makes for a sympathetic lead. It ends much like the previous volume, but there are a few chills and thrills along the way. This being said, I don’t think Paranormal Activity 4 has much to offer to those who aren’t already fans of the series … but then again, so it goes for horror series in general. I’m still reacting well to this franchise’s instalments, and part of it has to do with how they’re not glorifying the monster … at least not yet. On the other hand, I’m increasingly unsure that the series mythology will cohere into anything satisfying by the time they’ll milk the last drop out of it.
(Video On-Demand, March 2017) As someone with supposedly professional movie criticism credentials, I loathe to dislike a movie because of an unhappy ending, but here I am now thinking about Allied and what sticks in my craw is the ending. Much of it has to do with expectations set up much earlier in the movie. Allied does begin, after all, with a first act in which two likable heroes meet in WW2 Casablanca, fall in love and kill some Nazis in a guns-blazing action sequence. It’s fun and games and doesn’t really represent the rest of the film, which goes back to England for some rainy gloomy counter-espionage drama. It gets less and less triumphant as it goes on, while Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are perhaps too successful in creating sympathy for their characters—by the time we see there is no issue for both of them, it’s too late. Otherwise, director Robert Zemeckis is up to his usual technically demanding standards in presenting a World-War 2 drama with flair and theatrics—there’s a love-in-a-sandstorm sequence that’s both effective and over-the-top, a decent recreation of covert work tension and fancy camera moves. While the film exploits WW2 spy tropes for drama, it remains grounded in some reality. (Well, other than Brad Pitt speaking French—while he’s supposed to be a Franco-Ontarian like myself, his French sounds exactly like an Englishman reciting European French phonetically—and no amount of in-script joshing about it can compensate.) A shame about the downbeat ending, then, because otherwise Allied is semi-successful at what it tried to do. Although, what can I say—I’m a guy. Spies, guns and car chases work better than tragic romance.