(On Cable TV, July 2017) I can be a surprisingly good audience for middle-of-the-road comedies, which may explain why I had a generally good time watching Keeping up with the Joneses even though it doesn’t really revolution anything. Much of it has to do with the movie giving good roles to three actors I like, and minimizing the irritation from an actor that I generally find annoying. Beginning not too far away from The ’burbs, this film begins as a comfortably married couple having shipped their kids to summer camp reacts to the arrival of a sexy new couple in their cul-de-sac: As hints of improper behavior pile up, the wife becomes convinced that the new neighbours are spies, while the husband excuses away the incidents and tries to make friends with the new guy. Complications piles up, leading to a second half that’s far more action-heavy than the comedic first half. Much of it feels familiar, to the point of missing comic opportunities by lack of daring. But who cares about originality when you’ve got Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot and Isla Fisher co-starring? All three of them get a chance to show their comic skills, with Gadot and Hamm in particular getting a further opportunity to play action heroes along the way. Gadot in particular gets a role that balances toughness, seduction and comedy—it’s not a great movie, but it’s the kind of film that encapsulates her range at this point. Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis, often unbearably annoying in his usual screen persona, is here reined in and almost tolerable as a mild-mannered HR officer targeted for counterintelligence operations. (He’s far more sympathetic than in his almost-contemporary Masterminds, for instance.) It makes up for a likable quartet of comedians, and Keeping Up with the Joneses coasts a long time on their inherent likability … and having Gadot and Fisher both show up in decent lingerie. Otherwise, the action scenes are generic, elements of the conclusion are arbitrary and the epilogue is a disappointment. Still, it’s a relatively entertaining film, somewhat unobjectionable and yet likable in its own way. I’ve seen far worse this week alone, starting with the aforementioned Masterminds.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) As someone who doesn’t mind romantic movies but is easily bored with them, I’m reminded by Water for Elephants that the key to an interesting romance is largely made out of its setting. In this case, setting a relatively standard love triangle in the middle of a 1930s travelling circus feels like an instant shot of interest—watching the minutiae of a circus is fascinating to the point when it’s easy to tolerate the familiar romantic plot. None of the three main actors impress by going out of persona—Reese Witherspoon is her usual forgettable self, while Christoph Waltz genially chews scenery and Robert Pattinson continues to prove that he’s better than his Twilight character but not that far removed from it. Still, the star here is the travelling circus and its sub-culture, the details of setting up the big top every day and the challenges of trying to run a circus in depression-era America. It’s a great setting and you can lose yourself in the way the movie shows those details … before being brought to earth with the familiar love triangle featuring a good guy, a damsel in distress and an abusive husband. It wraps up satisfyingly, though, and that more than makes up for the familiar path trodden along the way. Production values are surprisingly good, and there’s a wealth of supporting characters who get a shining moment or two. I was surprised by Water for Elephants—I expected something duller and middle-of-the-road, but that was based on reading a plot summary—the actual film is far more generous than expected in its period details and richness of setting. I’ll take it.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) One of my least favourite archetypes is the Holy Fool, the innocent that seems protected from reality by authorial fiat. So it is that Being There is built around the notion that we can project higher qualities onto people who don’t really have them. It does so by presenting a child-minded man who, for decades, has never had to face reality. Well dressed, mild-mannered and competent in gardening, he is thrown in the real world following the death of his benefactor, and manages, through a series of convenient misadventures and falsely profound gardening homilies, to become a respected pundit and political confidante, all the way to being considered as a presidential candidate. (Considering the ongoing fallout of the 2016 presidential election, this is far less funny than it must have been at the time.) Considering my distaste for that kind of story, the first act of Being There is actively irritating. Things do improve afterward, as we start seeing other people’s reaction to the protagonist—that’s when the real world comes back to the movie, and the real comedy begins. But there are limits to the material, especially when it’s a one-note premise stretched so thin over more than two hours. Begin There overstays its welcome as it keeps making the same points. Still, as much as I don’t particularly like the film, there is much to admire in Peter Seller’s performance as the oracular idiot: It takes a lot of skill to act simple-minded while maintaining a credible veneer of respectability, and Sellers is usually able to hit that particular target. (I’m not too fond of Shirley MacClaine’s seduction scene, but the seventies were a special time.) (I’m also not that fond of the ending outtake.) (Although that last shot is growing on me.) I shudder to think of what a modern version of the movie would look like, especially with someone like Will Ferrell in the lead. While there are a few things of interest in Being There, the overall effect is more tedious than satisfying—but then again, I didn’t expect to like the film anyway.
(On TV, July 2017) While, in a perfect world, I’d like to see every movie free of preconceptions and expectations, it doesn’t work like that. There are so many movies and so little time that some guidance is necessary, and that can set expectations. Try to pick your movie according to a top-movies list, for instance, and the challenge becomes whether you agree with the placement of that movie on the list. Paris, Texas is on many such lists, and it would take a wilful ignorance of film history to avoid measuring the on-screen result with the accumulated acclaim. I was surprised to find out that my interest in the movie peaked midway through. The first section seems overly stylized, as a long-lost homeless man is found by his brother and brought from aimless rural wanderings to the big city. Strange accents, visual fake outs, an alien vision of America and a plodding pacing don’t exactly inspire confidence that the rest of the film is going to be much better. (Although there is a five-minute segment that seems to prefigure Rain Man’s road trip rationale three years later.) The middle section is perhaps the best, as our recovering amnesiac reintegrates society and in particular reconnects with his son. But then, just as our hopes for the film peak, it’s time for a third act that just keeps dragging on and on and on long after the point at which it should accelerate and wrap up. The final half-hour is exasperating, as it laboriously seems to begin another movie and becomes less and less grounded in reality. While Paris, Texas does have its moments of emotional power thanks to director Win Wenders, it also seems undisciplined and lax. Far too long for its own good, it becomes less interesting as it goes on and wastes a far more engaging middle section. But then again every generation has its classics—perhaps Paris, Texas’s star has started to wane.
(Netflix streaming, July 2017) It seems counter-intuitive that a dull movie would feature a great performance, but here you go: Sexy Beast is an overly stylish, largely forgettable crime film that can nonetheless boast of a terrific performance by Ben Kingsley. Kingsley enjoys a reputation as a very respected actor (he won an Oscar for playing Gandhi, no less), but many of his roles have been on the less respectable side of the spectrum, and in Sexy Beast he hits a nadir of sorts as a psychopathic criminal with a non-existent fuse. Copious swearing and psychological manipulation is the least of what he can do, and violence is never far from his actions. It’s a terrific performance, and unfortunately it lands in a film that doesn’t deserve it. Sexy Beast is a caper film that masquerades as a psychological crime drama, but it’s almost empty of anything looking like suspense. While I usually like stylishly directed film, Jonathan Glazer’s work here seems more pretentious and aimless than anything else—None of the pieces really add up to anything interesting, and while I liked the dynamics of a crucial scene in which victims take revenge, Sexy Beast takes a long time to get there, and falsely thinks it’s not the end of the story. Everything else is anticlimactic and increasingly irritating. The result couldn’t be more uneven: a great performance by a great actor, limited in a film that doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
(On TV, July 2017) Roman Polanski’s Carnage, adapted from a theatre piece, isn’t much more than a one-set conversation between two couples that quickly turns bad. It almost acts as a prototype for Polanski’s later Venus in Fur, down to the bookends being the only escape from the limited set. In some ways, it’s depressing to see grown adult viciously turn on each other. In others, and especially toward the end, it becomes blackly amusing to see the four characters variously argue against each other, forming shifting alliances, as well as exposing secrets and resentment in an explosion of anger. It helps that in-between Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz, Polanski doesn’t need more help in the acting department: All four are terrific, although Waltz gets perhaps the most overly slimy role, while Reilly gets to break out of his usual nice-guy persona. This being said, none of the other characters are perfect, and Carnage is about peeling the layers that usually limit polite conversation. Once you’re caught on that this is going to be a verbal demolition derby, you can wait until the next inevitable reconfiguration of factions—including couples vs the other, men vs women, three-vs-one and so on. Also: If you’ve been waiting for seeing Kate Winslet vomiting profusely, then this is the film for you. (As for the rest of us: Ew.) Unfortunately, Carnage ends limply, almost as if it had run out of things to say—there isn’t much of a conclusion to the conversation, and whatever closure is offered by the film comes from the final bookend. Still, as a film that places so much emphasis on dialogue between limited characters, Carnage is a nice change of pace, and even a mildly entertaining piece of verbal fireworks.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) An unfortunate collision occurred in the making of The Road to El Dorado, as an adventure film for all audiences crashed into a Disney kid’s movie. What could have been a rousing adventure tale became watered down in a series of musical numbers, kid-level plotting, easy answers and less-than-distinguished characters. At a basic level, this Dreamworks Animation production still works: There’s some fun in seeing two con artists make their way to El Dorado, being hailed as gods (albeit from someone with a Machiavellian intention) and dealing with the situation. Never mind the unbelievable coincidences required to get there: as a comedy, it works. But the musical numbers stop the movie in its tracks, the characters aren’t as distinct as they should be, much of the complexity of the story seems watered down for accessibility and kids friendliness—another rewrite could have worked wonders. As it is, it suffers from comparisons with the similarly themed contemporary The Emperor’s New Groove, which worked at a superior level in integrating Central-American imagery with rapid-fire comedy. I’m not saying that The Road to El Dorado is a waste of time—Chel’s character and her resolutely practical approach redeem much of the film—but it’s not quite what it could have been.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) on the one hand, Anomalisa is a powerful, unique, unusually intimate portrait of a man almost pathologically incapable of connecting to anyone else. On the other hand, it’s possible to watch the film and feel little but loathing for him. The first surprise is that the film, from Charlie Kaufman’s eccentric mind, is a work of stop-motion: Conventional wisdom has it that animated film usually portray something that would be impossible to film in real life, but here Anomalisa takes us with few shortcuts through the description of a businessman landing at an airport, taking a taxi to his hotel, checking in, having a bad date with an ex-girlfriend, meeting someone else, and having sex in a hotel room. It takes roughly an hour to get to this point, giving you an idea of the slow rhythm of the film and the care it takes at describing even the most mundane of activities. The stop motion heightens the immersion, deliberately re-creating the tiny gestures and interaction of life in a way that would be invisible in a low-budget film. While there is an obvious fantasy sequence later on, much of Anomalisa is spent in the crevices of life that other movies avoid. It also allows for artistic effects, such as giving the same face and voice to all other characters except for the protagonist and the woman who catches his attention. To its credit, Anomalisa isn’t afraid to portray its main character as reprehensible. Not only is he unable to connect (which is tragic in itself), he’s an adulterer and someone fundamentally incapable of ever being happy. Don’t be surprised to hate the guy by the end of the film. On the other hand, isn’t this Anomalisa’s point? Well, who knows: the surprising thing about small-scale dramas as Anomalisa is that they invite more interpretation than much-bigger genre spectacles. Here we get an acutely realistic sex scene between puppets that’s far more affecting than most of 2015’s movies, a deeply flawed protagonist, interesting ways to present internal conflict and a controlled experiment that may just be designed to irritate you. That’s not perfect (and there’s an argument to say that the film loses control toward the end, as it hits the fantasy sequence) but that’s the kind of experience that jaded cinephiles will treasure. Anomalisa isn’t necessarily a film you’ll see twice, but it’s more than worth seeing once.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) Most documentaries come and go, sinking to the depths of popular consciousness as their topic becomes of less currency, as events overtake what it presents, as everyone moves on and often retreat in obscurity. But once in a while, lightning strikes. In Pumping Iron’s case, a look at the bodybuilding culture of the mid-seventies had the incredible luck of capturing a showdown between future-megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger, and future Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno. The first half of Pumping Iron introduces its subject through beige gyms and outdated clothing styles, first focusing on the rivalry between Mike Katz and Ken Waller. Documentarian George Butler is working in the prehistory of modern nonfiction movies, but his approach is very much up to the latest reality-TV standard—focusing on drama, introducing his subjects in interviews while showing them interact. After a first half that feels like an introduction, Pumping Iron goes overseas to film the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in Peoria (South Africa), and in looking at the personalities of Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger. It helps that even at that time, Schwarzenegger is a magnetic presence: flirting, charming, but also capable of playing pranks and demolishing an opponent’s morale. Schwarzenegger, portrayed as a charming villain, overtly discusses how bodybuilding is as mental as it is physical, and how he is willing to use underhanded means in the name of competition. If Pumping Iron remains interesting today, it’s not solely because of its good overview of the then-marginal bodybuilding subculture. It’s not simply because it presents a decent pair of rivalries between bodybuilders. It’s squarely because Schwarzenegger faces off with Ferrigno, and Schwarzenegger wins. But that’s fair—George Butler got lucky, and the only thing to do when you get lucky is to enjoy it.
(Second viewing, Netflix Streaming, July 2017) In-between kid’s stuff and adult matters, there’s a teenage gray zone in which topics inappropriate for kids are discussed in ways inappropriate from adults. Too often, any effort to escape kids’ stuff ends up in a puerile mixture of violence, nudity and bad language for their own sake rather than in support of more enlightened discussions. So when Heavy Metal magazine was founded (in France as Metal Hurlant) as an adult alternative to kids comics, it ended up taking the easy path. Much of the same true for Heavy Metal the movie, which delves into grandiloquent yet meaningless drivel, embarrassing nudity, teenage power fantasies, gratuitous gore, pervasive swearing and a cynical worldview that smacks of poseur nihilism rather than experienced weariness. It really doesn’t help that the film ran out of time and budget before being completed, with a lot of shortcuts visible on-screen as cheap animation, truncated stories and insufficiently rotoscoped results. This anthology of animated stories contains ten entries, very loosely tied together by one of the worst framing stories (a green ball of evil!) ever put on film. “Soft Landing” gets things going smoothly with a unique rotoscope-dominated airbrushed style set to anthemic music. Then it’s off to the bottom with terrible framing story “Grimaldi”, trying-too-hard “Harry Canyon” and the embarrassing teenage power fantasy “Den”. I first saw Heavy Metal as an older teenager, but even then I knew that this particular segment was drivel. Things don’t necessarily improve with “Captain Sternn”, an overlong and unfunny attempt at a joke segment. On the other hand, “B-17” is the highlight of the film: It’s gratuitously gory in the darkest Twilight-Zone sense, but it’s interesting to watch and does offer some kind of conclusion, as arbitrary as it may seem. (It’s penned by Dan O’Bannon, who has quite a few more good stories to his credit.) This is followed by “So Beautiful and So Dangerous”, which is juvenile and unfinished, but at least has the decency to drop the all-darkness-all-the-time motif for some dumb fun and humour (and robosexual jokes). Alas, the longest and worst segment “Taarna” concludes the film with an embarrassing barbarian fantasy film that spends minutes ogling its mute female protagonist rather than deliver a satisfying story. “Den” and “Taarna”, taking together, give a pretty good glimpse at the inner fantasies of late-seventies teenagers, but seen from today’s perspective make for a movie that you’d be ashamed to suggest to anyone. The occasional good music and rare good segments don’t manage to make Heavy Metal anything but a slightly noxious representation of geek obsessions back then. Alas, they may still be more current than we’d wish.
(Crackle Streaming, July 2017) I’ve seen four movies from writer/director Nicolas Wendign Refn so far, and Bronson may be my favourite. But keep in mind that I don’t particularly like Refn’s stuff: There is something about Refn’s use of ultraviolence and his refusal to emphasize plot that I find off-putting. Only God Forgives was dull, Neon Demon wasn’t interested in its own horror story, and Drive … eh, it was good but not as good as advertised. Bronson, in comparison, seems to acknowledge its own artificiality in presenting a stylized vision of a British criminal’s life: Bronson-as-narrator (impressively played by Tom Hardy) addresses the audience, literally plays to a theatre audience and presents the highlights of his life in a deliberately exaggerated fashion. It works, but its humour is tempered by the inherent violence of Bronson’s character, as likely to smile at others than to beat them unconscious at the slightest provocation. The presence of a visible narrator does change the rhythm of the film compared to other biopics: it removes the need for obligatory connecting sequences and allows the film to span decades in just 90 minutes. There’s something honest in the way Bronson falsely idolizes its subject, giving him the loudest megaphone to indulge in rough humour and winner-takes-all rhetoric, but allowing viewers to realize how insane Bronson can be in doing so. In allowing such a full-throated voice to the criminal, it also allows a far better representation of its subject than conventional tut-tutting biopics. (Also see The Wolf of Wall Street as another example.) Not necessarily pleasant, but certainly unique, Bronson is the second of Refn’s films, after Drive, that I’m conventionally glad to have seen rather than checking off a box in a list.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) You say “dated”, I say “period piece”. You say “techno-thrillers age poorly”, I say, “techno-thrillers preserve the obsessions of the time”. But mostly, I say that Blue Thunder remains far more relevant today than anyone would have expected. It is, for sure, a movie of its exact time: In 1983 Los Angeles, the police force experiments with a high-powered helicopter for crowd control in anticipation of the 1984 Olympic Games. The fancy titular helicopter brings together a package of high technology such as on-demand access to police databases, pervasive surveillance technology, stealth features, deadly weaponry and primitive augmented-reality targeting. Hot stuff—even if today, you could get nearly everything in that list in your average phone save for the weaponry. If the evolution of technology in older movies fascinates you, then Blue Thunder ought to be on your list of movies to watch given how clearly it exploits 1983’s cutting-edge … yet has quite a bit of relevance to today’s hot-button topics of government intrusion in private lives, and indiscriminate targeting of civilians in the name of security. You may want to ignore the plot along the way, though, given how many contrivances are required to set up the action sequences. On the other hand, come for the technology and stay for the action sequences, because Blue Thunder does eventually work its way to a spectacular prolonged action sequence above the skies of downtown Los Angeles, between helicopters and military jets, buildings and police cars. Director John Badham shows his mastery of action sequences here, to the point where they still compare well to contemporary movies. Roy Scheider is sympathetic enough as the protagonist, while Malcolm McDowell almost earns hissing as the villain. I expect a drone-centric remake any time soon. In the meantime, Blue Thunder is well worth revisiting, both for what it has to say (usually against its titular helicopter) and for the way it illustrates its message with well-executed action sequences.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I may be overdosing on criminal comedies featuring idiots, explaining my tepid reaction to Masterminds. On paper, it does sound promising: What if an idiot working for an armoured car company found a way to steal a considerable amount of money … only to be stalked and targeted by equally idiotic accomplices? Throw in a cast including such notables a Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kirsten Wiig, Leslie Jones or Kate McKinnon and you’ve got the making of a good-enough comedy. But it takes more than comedians and a premise to make a film, and as Masterminds lurches from one mildly amusing set-piece to another, there’s a feeling that director Jared Hess is up to the kinds of tricks that made his previous films (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) so divisive. Masterminds makes the classic blunder of keeping an unfunny gag running for as long as possible, sapping audience goodwill at periodic intervals. There are clearly attempts at making something amusing in this film, and some of them even succeed. But the overall result is not particularly funny, and the criminal plot of the film really isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Owen Wilson seems a bit lost in a role that robs him of his usual genial nature, and Wiig is up to more or less the same kind of awkward comedy that either works or not. This being said, Gallifinakis is not bad, and comic-chameleon Kate McKinnon continues her prodigious streak of disappearing in the roles she’s given. Masterminds doesn’t exactly deserve a spot on worst-movie list, but it certainly disappoints.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Documentarian Alex Gibney is almost a national treasure at this point, able to transform complex modern topics in hard-hitting yet compulsively viewable documentaries. In Zero Days, he takes on one of the most fascinating computer security issues of the century so far, which is to say the Stuxnet worm that, in 2005, spread over the planet yet appeared to very specifically target uranium centrifuges used in the Iranian nuclear weapon development program. Throughout it duration, Zero Days patiently describes the way the worm was discovered, its complex peculiarities, what was hidden in the code, and why, piece by piece, security experts identified the United States and/or Israel secret services as likely candidates for the worm’s development. But as Gibney can’t get any official confirmation, he gets mad and, midway through, brings out his own confidential sources: Intelligence Community officers who, concerned with the potential of cyber-weapons, are willing to confirm and explain what had, up to this point, been merely informed speculation: NSA and Israel developed Stuxnet, then Israel made it more virulent and allowed it to escape with little thought about detection. (It probably also ran the more aggressive Stuxnet alongside a more conventional campaign of targeted assassination of Iranian nuclear experts.) Much of this story is familiar to people even remotely knowledgeable about cyber-security (check out Stuxnet’s Wikipedia page for details) but then Zero Days has a final revelation of its own: Nitro Zeus, a set of exploits and plans designed to bring down Iran’s infrastructure. It’s that kind of capability that led the NSA officers to leak details of US operations. It’s also that kind of stuff that should keep you awake, especially now that more leaks have suggested the existence of a Nitro Zeus aimed at Russia … and Russia’s own infrastructure-meddling experiments in Ukraine. Twenty-first-century warfare is not going to be about tanks and missiles, and it’s going to reach people in their own homes. Zero Days is a good primer on how bad it can be. By the time it replays the Obama administration’s happy announcement of a deal regarding the end of Iran’s nuclear program, the implied meaning is far more sinister: The US won its first cyber-war. But there will be others.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Hmmm. As much as I’d like to like Passengers a lot, there a bit too much nonsense, mismatched tones and wasted opportunities to be entirely comfortable with the result. On the one hand, I do like that it’s an original Science-Fiction movie (for Hollywood values of “original”, which is to say one that only has half a dozen predecessors in print SF) and one that’s slickly made: the setting is terrific, and the film has the budget to fully presents its environment. I love the first half-hour, in which a man wakes up alone in a gigantic spaceship, 90 years from its destination: With a bit of tweaking, it could stand in for the first section of an adaptation of Allen Steele’s terrific short story “The Days Between”. Chris Pratt is pretty good as the desperately alone protagonist, stuck in a nightmare caused by automated arrogance. Never mind that the plot doesn’t make a bit of real-world sense yet, because there’s more to come. The film becomes uglier as our protagonist decides to wake up a carefully chosen passenger, essentially dooming her to the same drawn-out death than him. That moral choice is not indefensible as a plot point, but it does set up expectations that are dashed when the film moves on to “but there was a catastrophe on the way, so it’s all OK!” as an excuse for his actions. A harsher conclusion would have made the gesture carry more weight, although it likely would have robbed Passengers of its mainstream appeal. There are quite a few logical and scientific errors later on, and they do sap the movie of its accumulated goodwill. Not much of the film’s problems can be blamed on its very short cast, though: Chris Pratt makes for a credible everyday man, and while we’re past peak-Jennifer Lawrence adulation, she’s rather good in a role that asks for some very dramatic moments. To be fair, I also liked Passengers a whole lot more watching it moment-by-moment than I would have expected by reading some of its harsher reviews—at times, the vitriol-versus-film ratio reminded me of the Prometheus episode, in which a slickly-made SF movie gets roasted for factors that don’t faithfully reflect the entire film. It’s also worth noting that what bothers people most about Passengers is an integral part of the film’s plot, and that it’s never avoided or downplayed. If this sounds like a half-hearted defence of the film, then I suppose it is—Passengers doesn’t have what it takes to be a great SF movie, but it definitely has its strong moments and haunting sequences. Passengers also shows, in many ways, how mass audiences are now willing to accept and play with concepts that used to be cutting-edge SF a few decades ago—as much as I can quibble with the errors, the distasteful nature of its premise or the way it plays safe, it’s also a polished piece of space-set SF the likes of which I’d like to see more often.