(On TV, April 2017) Perhaps the biggest surprise of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is how neatly it follows-up on the first film. Despite a few new characters and situations, subplots are carried through, the tone is consistent and nearly every character gets a role to play in the sequel. The film picks up not too long after the first, which means that you can see the two film back-to-back and it will feel like a whole. The portrait of India is pleasantly complicated as the story goes a bit beyond the surface impressions of the first film. Judy Dench once again takes on a substantial role, but the ensemble cast does give substantial characters to Maggie Smith (continuing a solid character arc), Bill Nighy (charming in a role that could have been irritating), Dev Patel and, newly introduced in the series, Richard Gere. While The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is slightly more formulaic than the already schematic original (all the way to climaxing at a wedding), it’s a decent-enough follow-up to the first film—those who were charmed by the first Exotic Marigold Hotel are likely to feel just as pleased with this one.
(Crackle Streaming, April 2017) Some things are difficult to appreciate until they’re gone, and as a cinephile I do rather miss the steady stream of Asian-influenced martial arts action movies of the early 2000s. Following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (exploiting a trend a decade in the making through the home video market), American theatres received a steady stream of Asian action movies for a few years, and it was easy to believe that it would go on forever. Except that it didn’t, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find any of those movies at the multiplex. Interestingly, this may make then-overlooked movies more interesting to watch today. I’d given a miss to Unleashed at the time, but seeing it today probably makes it look a bit better than I would have felt back then. Not that the movie is particularly bad in itself: Jet Li stars as a gifted fighter raised like an attack dog by a London criminal, and Unleashed predictably follows what happens once he’s adopted by a kindly blind man and his daughter. You can write the rest of the story yourself and wouldn’t be far off from the result (Luc Besson actually scripted the movie and it’s a slightly above average script for him). But the point of the film (despite a performance by Morgan Freeman as the blind man) isn’t the story or the action as much as it’s the action sequences directed by Louis Leterrier and performed by Jet Li. The camera moves well, captures the action nicely and does allow for the grittiness of the premise to be counter-balanced by the comfort found by the hero with his new family. Bob Hoskins also turns up in a memorable loan shark role. While Unleashed isn’t a classic for the ages, it holds up generally well. Twelver years later, it also has the advantage of looking more original than it did back then.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I first saw Die Hard with a Vengeance on opening day, and I’m pretty sure I saw it again on DVD ten or fifteen years ago. But I can’t find a mention of it on this site, so here we go: I really, really like the first two-third of this film. It open on the iconic “Summer in the City” soundtrack of a bustling mid-nineties Manhattan before starting to blow stuff up. Then it’s a wild ride through the city, accumulating brain-teasers, going through cheeky overdone action sequences and letting Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson do what they do best. John McTiernan’s direction is exceptionally good and there’s a sense of fun, joy and movement to the story. Every cinephile imprints on the movies of younger years, and mid-to-late nineties action cinema is the standard against which I will forever measure others. Die Hard With a Vengeance’s first two acts is good, solid, highly enjoyable moviemaking. I like it a lot, and I had forgotten just enough details about the movie to be charmed all over again. It’s also a beautiful wide-screen homage to New York City in its multiplicities of glories. Then … the film leaves Manhattan and loses quite a bit of steam. While the script is always big on coincidences, they get actively outrageous by the time our two main characters meet again upstate. By the time we’re on a boat, the film settles down to a far more conventional beat, and the tacked-on ending at the border feels more superfluous than anything else. Still, two-third of a great movie followed by a third of an okay one is better than the average. Contemporary viewers will notice that both Trump and Clinton are name-checked (the latter as a likely “forty third president”), and that a few moments eerily echo the events of 9/11.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Ensemble romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but few of them tackle the topic of retiree romance as well as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While I don’t entirely buy the premise (pensioners moving from Britain to India for their last few years), it does make for a clever way to put familiar characters in new situations. As they navigate the unfamiliarity of modern India, our cast of character grows from their new surroundings, we viewers get a good dose of exoticism and various subplots are left free to develop. A good ensemble casts helps—While Judy Dench and Tom Wilkinson are the standouts here, Bill Nighy manages to make a weak-willed character sympathetic and Maggie Smith gets the difficult role of a stone-cold racist changing her ways after immersion in a foreign culture. Dev Patel also gets a good role as the young Indian man trying to hold a plan together despite the actions of his western guests. Colorful, sympathetic and gently upholding admirable values, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the kind of pleasant surprise that British cinema does so well. It’s not spectacular, but it works well enough.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) I wish I could like The Killing Fields a bit more than I do. It is, after all, serious filmmaking the sorts of which are rarely attempted nowadays—a depiction of the rise of the Pol Pot regime in 1970s Cambodia, and the heroic efforts of a good man in trying to escape the nightmare. It’s an effective gateway to a history lesson, an intriguing look at a specific time and a place and a harrowing experience. Non-actor Haing S. Ngor delivers a terrific performance that required him to re-create several of his real-life experiences at the time, while John Malkovich pops up in a secondary role as an intense photographer. But a few things don’t work as well. There’s a strange shift of protagonists between the two halves of the film, as the focus goes from a western journalist to a Cambodian escapee as the film advances. It goes without saying that much of the film’s second half, as a story of oppression and dangerous escape, is filled with uncomfortable moments, human cruelty and tragic death. Finally, there’s the role held by the western journalist who’s supposed to be our entry character into the story—he spends much of the second half wracked by guilt, ineffectively trying to help his friend stuck behind enemy lines. Trading the white saviour narrative (since he’s unable to affect the events, and in fact his friend is the one who engineers and succeeds in his escape) for an extended white-guilt sequence doesn’t strike me as an improvement, but on the other hand this is a 1984 film and it does get points for tackling the topic at the time, in a way that does allow (save for an overdone reunion at the end) for the non-white character to be presented as an equal. On the other hand, maybe it could have been fairer to let that character be the hero of the entire film, rather than a supporting one in the first half? Still, despite those issues, The Killing Field does end up a decent film. It’s harsh and rough and can be a lot to take, especially for those relatively unfamiliar with the atrocities of Pol Pot’s Year Zero.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) While Lights Out isn’t a great horror movie and isn’t likely to become much of a reference, it is competently executed and reasonably good for an avowed genre effort. The mythology may not make much sense and the film often struggles to get out of rote narrative elements, but the direction (by first-timer David Sandberg) is effective and the film doesn’t overstay its welcome at barely 81 minutes. The best sequence, should anyone ask, has to do with the boyfriend character (a type usually doomed to third-act death) thinking fast and using his car key fob to good effect. The ending also has an impact, featuring the always-good Maria Bello. This isn’t the first time that “monster only seen in darkness” has been used, but the less said about Darkness Falls the better. Lights Out has a better chance to be remembered as a worthwhile if unspectacular horror film—especially if Sandberg goes on to bigger and better things. It should be noted that Lights Out, with its emphasis on sight, has a clear kinship with other sense-centric horror movies of the moment such as Hush and Don’t Breathe: an intriguing mini-trend in barely nine months.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) There is a big risky gamble at the heart of Life—the idea that you’d be able to create comedy out of a dramatic, even tragic premise: two innocent young men condemned for life in prison. Featuring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, no less. How do these clashes of sensibility would play out? As it turns out, much of Life is indeed dragged in all directions. At the macro-level, it’s a sad story, but at the micro-level, it’s Murphy and Lawrence insulting themselves with R-rated profanity-laden dialogue. It’s dumb and sad and funny and silly and weighty in random measures. The production values are fine, and there are two or three sequences that float above the rest—the dream nightclub sequence is particularly well-handled, for instance. During much of its duration, Life feels unfocused, but it does attaint some of its sought-after poignancy late in its running time, as the impact of time becomes more visible on the characters. It’s at that point when we remember what life in prison can mean, and the opportunities stolen from the characters. Even Lawrence isn’t annoying during that segment, making this the high point of his acting career so far. It’s a brief, but affecting moment … and then the film kind of squanders it by going through the motions of resolving long-held conflicts, allowing the characters one last devious plan and ending on an improbable happy ending. Even in concluding, Life does try to have it several ways at once, and feels a bit weaker for attempting it. While the film is worth a look, it may be more for studying its flaws that appreciating its qualities.
(On DVD, April 2017) Many horror movies from the seventies have not aged very well, and The Omen hovers in that strange zone between ridiculousness and effectiveness. What generally works is the atmosphere of dread, the middle section, the period detail and the refreshingly older protagonist (Gregory Peck, sixty years old at the time of the film’s release) anchoring the film. Those help The Omen maintain freshness even in light of everything that now look stupid about the film: The predictable nature of the bad-seed plot, slow pacing, familiar rehash of Catholic mythology, badly-staged horror sequences… It’s difficult, even psychopathic to think that you’d laugh at a plate-glass decapitation … until it happens and you think “gee, couldn’t this have been more convincing?” If nothing else, this sequence is a lesson in less-is-more—a tastefully restrained approach of not attempting to show the actual decapitations would have been far more effective. The Omen may have codified its share of horror clichés, but they are now clichés and the film suffers from their overuse. Still, there is some decent mainstream ambition from director Richard Donner in making this horror story a decent film for large audiences (rather than going the genre route) and it’s one of the reasons why, even if it does feel faintly silly, The Omen still reverberates today. [May 2017: Ah-ha! I finally remembered that I had read about The Omen’s decapitation scene in Harlan Ellison’s An Edge in my Voice … and that after seeing the actual result, it’s obvious that Ellison’s completely tone-deaf in describing his appalled reaction at audience laughter during the scene. The scene is over-the-top and almost designed, as is, to provoke laughter. Sorry Harlan—you’re not always right!]
(On TV, April 2017) While a let-down from the original barbarian epic, Conan the Destroyer does have a few things going for it. It embraces a more team-oriented plot than the first film, bringing a bit of diversity to the adventure while decently presenting a kind of quest fantasy Dungeons-and-Dragons dynamic on-screen. Arnold Schwarzenegger remains the anchor of the cast, but nearly everyone gets a good moment to play or two—Wilt Chamberlain and Andre the Giant show up, Olivia D’Abo is cute as the nominal love interest, but Grace Jones is a special effect of her own even if her acting talents are, well, not up to even Arnold’s standards. Much of the plot is a loose succession of adventures, reinforcing the impression of seeing a quest story on-screen. Lighter on the violence, heavier on humour, Conan the Destroyer may be a bit more accessible even if it loses much of what had made such an impression during the first film. Still, much as the first film remains noteworthy for being an almost-definitive adaptation of barbarian fantasy on-screen, this sequel gets a lot of things right in portraying classical group quest fantasy as well. It doesn’t quite have as much wit as it should, but that’s how sequels go.
(On DVD, April 2017) Here’s another Disney movie I have watched in bits and pieces (thanks to the resident household pre-schooler) but never from beginning to end in its original language. Widely acknowledged as the film that solidified the template for the Disney renaissance of the nineties, The Little Mermaid mixes in classical literature inspiration, princesses, humour, song, animal sidekicks and just about anything that we can recognize from the Disney archetype. It’s not always equally inspiring, but it certainly works. The songs can be memorable (although I suspect that my French rendition of “Under the Sea” only uses half the original words) while the comedy works to defuse some of the tension of an otherwise dramatic story. Ariel is likable (if not exactly the smartest … but give her a break, she’s just a teenager), Ursula is detestable, the animal sidekicks are equally funny and annoying … yes, this is a prototypical Disney film, at least until the 2010s Disney Resurgence era. Even today, The Little Mermaid remains a foundation piece for any family film collection for a good reason.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Every successive film in The Purge series has done better justice to the concept of its premise. Unfortunately, every successive film’s impact has also been blunted by our familiarity with the series, to the point where The Purge: Election Year almost does justice to the enduringly dumb premise, but it still feels like a re-hash given that we’ve seen the first two films anyway. While it flirts with heavier political ideas than the previous film, it undercuts its own material by bringing in quasi-religious snippets that feel tired and cartoonish. Still, the emphasis here remains on the heroes living through the night, blending high and low society in-between a presidential candidate, a shopkeeper and a notorious EMT whose backstory remains blessedly obscure. Frank Grillo’s character returns, but the links between this and the previous installment remain tenuous. Elizabeth Mitchell and Betty Gabriel both make good impressions, but this remains a premise-centric show with a horror film’s fondness for gruesome set-pieces. Exactly the kind of movie that’s dulled by too-frequent repetition. I’m neither too enthusiastic nor too critical of The Purge: Election Year, but it’s a good thing I didn’t watch all three films back-to-back-to-back, otherwise I’m not sure I’d like it as much. This being said, mark me down a nominally interested in a remake ten years from now, but only on the condition that it actually explores some of the ideas of The Purge in greater details and consistency than what we’ve seen so far.
(On DVD, April 2017) Let’s clarify one thing: Thanks to more than twenty years of cultural osmosis and a pre-schooler, I have watched bits and snippets and segments of The Lion King dozens of times. But this is the first time I’m watching it from start to finish in the original English, so I’ll count it as a first watch. From the first few minutes, which introduce the African savannah in a series of top-notch animated snippets, it’s obvious that its reputation as one of the highlights of the Disney Renaissance is well deserved: 2D cell animation has never been more spectacular, and there is a firm control over the way the story is presented. The inspiration from Shakespearian dramatic plotting works well, and the character work is effective. I don’t quite like the turn from second to third act, though: If we’re to believe the film at face value, the hero does nothing but loaf like a stoner (to the tune of Hakkuna Matata) for a few years and re-emerges a hero, instantly able to take down a corrupt leader. Um … wouldn’t it have been better for him to actually develop during this time? Never mind … bring in the funny animal sidekicks instead. Oh well. Otherwise, though, The Lion King holds up well even today—many of the film’s songs have escaped into the wild to become part of pop culture, and so have a number of references to other moments in the film. Its darker tone (compared to other Disney films/musicals of the period) make it a better fit for older kids … and for adults as well.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) I am apparently not a very good audience for westerns because I spent most of The Outlaw Josey Wales bored out of my mind, waiting for the next thing to happen. Granted, this is the kind of film where this reaction is understandable: structured in episodes, the film follows our eponymous hero (played by Clint Eastwood) as he seeks revenge for the murder of his family. Stuff happens, then stuff happens and then more stuff happens in episodes that feel almost disconnected until the third act finally brings them together. It’s a familiar story, told adequately. The ending does make the overall film better, but it feels interminable until then. This being said, this is one of those movies worth looking up on Wikipedia, because the behind-the-scenes drama involves Clint Eastwood taking over directing from Philip Kaufman (leading to the DGA’s “Eastwood Rule” forbidding actors from firing directors) intertwined with a burgeoning relationships between Eastwood and co-star Sondra Locke that would span the decades and create a number of scandals along the way. The point being: The Outlaw Josey Wales is a key movie in Eastwood’s life and filmography, and it’s practically impossible to discuss him without taking a look at his personal life during the shooting of the movie. While the film itself may not be all that compelling today, it’s the price of admission to learn far more than we’d like about Eastwood’s private failings.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I’m sure that I last saw Die Hard 2 roughly ten years ago, but since I can’t find trace of it in my online reviews, let’s have another go at it: A decent follow-up to the first movie, Die Hard 2 leaves the skyscraper for a snow-covered airport and reliably goes for big action sequences no matter their crazy justification. Bruce Willis stars as John MacClaine, a bit more super-powered than in the original but still recognizable as a reluctant everyman hero stuck in a bad situation. It still works pretty well, despite some rough special effects and occasional lulls: Director Renny Harlin was climbing at the top of his game back then, and the tension of the film is effectively handled. What I didn’t remember from previous viewing is how heavily saturated by eighties politics the script remains—the references to Irangate are barely camouflaged, and the film does carry a perceptible whiff of Reagan-era political concerns. But of course, the point are the action sequences, and Die Hard 2 does measure up decently as an action film. While not the enduring classic of its prequel, Die Hard 2 remains a good action movie … and it still lives up to expectations today.
(On Cable TV, April 2017) Mark me down as pleasantly surprised by energetic teenage techno-thriller Nerve. It’s got an intriguing premise coupled with a rather good execution, and it doesn’t take itself all that seriously nor pretend that it’s anything other than what it is. Adapted from a novel (but wisely choosing to lighten up the original material), Nerve takes current anxieties about social media and puts them into a blender. What comes out is a mobile game in which participants are asked to perform increasingly dangerous dares for an audience of thousands. Smartphones are essential, and so are throngs of followers. Our heroine (Emma Roberts, rather good) falls into the rabbit-hole by accident, but it doesn’t take a long time for her to be stuck alongside a bad-boy teammate (Dave Franco, decent enough) as the stakes increase. (Elsewhere in casting, fans of Orange is the New Black will be amused to see two of the series’ distinctive actresses, Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley, back on-screen albeit not necessarily together.) While clearly aimed at a teenage audience, Nerve does benefit from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s sense for the zeitgeist and keeping things moving. New York City makes for a fun playground to the action, and the film doesn’t quite shy away from ruminating on the viewer’s complicity in outlandish internet stunts. It’s a teenage film that couldn’t exist as such if it had been made for adults, and that’s quite a distinction by itself. Otherwise, Nerve is a tight 96-minutes thriller, perfect to watch as long as expectations are kept low enough to be surprised.