(On Cable TV, October 2017) Of all the things I didn’t really want to see, a sensitive, almost exculpatory look at celebrity fraudster Bernie Madoff is way up there. (If there was any justice in the world, Madoff should have fuelled a few more years of Occupy Wall Street.) It does take a while for The Wizard of Lies to overcome this prejudice, especially at it seems to spend its first hour explaining how, aw shucks, Madoff kind of, you know, stumbled into massive pyramid schemes as a business model. But, slowly, the movie does get better. It helps that Madoff is played by Robert de Niro (finally acting, for a change) and that capable actors such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Hank Azaria (under the watchful eye of director Barry Levinson) are there to keep up their halves of dialogues. The script struggles under the weight of the accepted biopic standards, allowing itself a few fanciful moments to break the monotony. But The Wizard of Lies hits its strides during its last act, as the weight of Madoff’s criminal acts finally catch up with him well after incarceration. His name now synonymous with fraud, his wife leaves him to rot in jail and his son commits suicide. At more than two hours, this made-for HBO film is a modest success but it may not be as good as it could have been. Madoff’s warm portrayal can be infuriating, but the film does lack a bit of extra energy, especially at first, to make it compulsively watchable. Still, it’s a fairly worthwhile entry in HBO Films’ long list of biopics … and it deserved its Emmy nominations.
(Crackle Streaming, October 2017) Ho, boy. Another home-invasion horror movie. Another group of psychopaths. Another couple of innocent victims. Another unnecessary attempt at “evil can strike at any time!” messaging, submerged under the cheap thrills of psychopaths running amok. No, there really isn’t anything to The Strangers worth noticing when there’s an entire sub-genre of home invasion horror movies out there. I don’t like the genre, and I don’t like The Strangers, even more so given my girl-next-door liking for Liv Tyler. It’s a really dull movie, and the best thing that can happen for anyone who wants to see it is to goof up on similar titles and see 2008’s The Visitor instead.
(On TV, October 2017) I really didn’t expect much from Dracula 2000: Vampire movies are a hit-and-miss proposition even at the best of times, and this one had slipped under my radar back in 2000 even as I was seeing nearly everything else in theatres. More than a decade and a half later, the only thing that looks noteworthy about the movie is a cast that includes Johnny Lee Miller, pre-300 Gerard Butler and Christopher Plummer. The plot is a half-hearted contemporary update to Bram Stoker’s Dracula featuring professional thieves and an unexplainable New Orleans setting. Even looking at bits and pieces of the film are grounds for disappointment, as the film features very dated directing and editing. Still, I had more fun than I expected from this low-profile horror movie: It’s not Blade II, but it’s more enjoyable than Blade III. The contemporary update is almost interesting, the Dracula-as-Judas thing may not be fresh but it’s clever and I think that Dracula 2000 was one of the first movies to popularize it. Justine Waddell (looking a lot like Ashley Judd) isn’t particularly remarkable as the heroine, but Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Esposito and Jeri Ryan as Dracula’s three brides are a very good choice. Jonny Lee Miller plays close to his Elementary persona (minus the whole genius thing), while Gerard Butler is almost unrecognizable as Dracula. There is, in other words, just enough in Dracula 2000 to surprise, even though the execution of those things may not be good enough to fully satisfy. Nonetheless, the film endures just a bit better than many B-grade movies of the time, and seventeen years later that’s not a bad claim at all.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) For a nearly three-hour long movie from legendary director Stanley Kubrick, there is an unexpected levity to Barry Lyndon that I didn’t expect from the film’s reputation. It’s also a very unusual film in that its second half manages to completely undermine the triumphs of its first, suggesting that some characters are made to achieve success but not maintain it. Adapted from a nineteenth-century novel by William Thackeray, Barry Lyndon feels far more modern because of its somewhat satirical nature. Our protagonist spends the first section of the film stumbling and scheming himself in positions of higher power, eventually marrying rich and acquiring some measure of nobility despite a checkered past. Ryan O’Neal isn’t necessarily as charismatic as the character deserves, but there is a sense of adventure to the protagonist’s upward trajectory. The hammer hits after the intermission, as the protagonist finds himself unsuited to the work required to remain a decent noble. His mismanages his finances, alienates himself from his step-son, suffers through his son’s death, turns to alcohol and eventually loses it all. Such a narrative arc is still relatively unusual, and so Barry Lyndon remains distinctive even today. It certainly helps that it’s a film that features all of director Stanley Kubrick’s hallmarks, from stylized cinematography that still looks modern today, to an abundance of filmmaking effort that clearly shows on-screen. I thought, based on running time and subject matter, that Barry Lyndon would be an unbearable bore, but the result is far better than my expectations.
(In French, On TV, October 2017) There is, without question, a lot of fun to be had watching The Witches of Eastwick on a basic level, as three likable women are seduced by the devil incarnate, only to take revenge. Jack Nicholson playing the Devil is as perfect a piece of casting as you can imagine, and there’s no denying the combined sex-appeal of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon as the titular coven. The film does have a good go at satirizing various relationship conventions (What do Women Want? Indeed) before predictably moving toward a female empowerment finale. But therein lies the rub: There was no other way to finish the film, and it kind of goes wrong in subtle and no-so-subtle ways. I would feel far better if a woman had written the screenplay, because the male gaze (and male privilege) shown here is problematic. I’m not sure that all three women being ga-ga over babies of a dubious father makes sense. (It makes even less sense to consider that one of the female characters already has half a dozen children that practically never show up during the movie—where are they and why isn’t she spending time with them???) In some way, The Witches of Eastwick is an artifact of a time that is hopefully past—a dumb producer’s (i.e.: Jon Peters) brute-force vision of something that should be far more delicately handled. The Witches of Eastwick is funny and sexy, but it’s a guilty fun and an even guiltier sexiness. It doesn’t help that the script seems patched-up at times. The cherry pit-vomiting sequences are just gross and take away from the generally amiable remainder of the picture. (Then again, this is directed by George Miller, who’s made a career to strange tonal shifts) But this was 1987 and we’re now thirty years later—I’d be game for a less problematic remake, but I’m not sure who could step up to Nicholson’s performance.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) My rule of thumb for David Lynch is that the more conventional his movies get, the better I like them. (The Straight Story and The Elephant Man would suggest that some sentimentality also helps, but Dune doesn’t really fit in that pattern.) In any case, The Elephant Man is only grotesque on the surface, as a horribly deformed man (John Hurt, justifiably unrecognizable) is taken in by a benevolent doctor (a very young Anthony Hopkins, looking unusually dashing with a black beard), revealing his sensitive nature to Victorian-era London even as some people can’t see past appearances. There is a strong sympathy here for the marginal protagonist of the story, and it’s that sympathy that carries through the movie even as the lead character gets kidnapped, abused, insulted and wounded. It ends beautifully (if tragically), which wasn’t a given considering the dour nature of the humans in the story. The Elephant Man isn’t perfect: there’s quite a bit of manipulation in hiding the protagonist’s true nature for a long time before the end of the first act, and it’s best not to dig too deep in the real events that inspired the film. On the other hand, it’s a more effective Lynch film because it is grounded more strongly in reality, which doesn’t preclude some pointed questions about human nature and motives. The re-creation of Victorian London is evocative, and the direction has its moments of interest. While I’m not going to pretend that I liked the film more than I did, it does come as an antidote to my recent viewing of Eraserhead, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
(On TV, October 2017) There is an initial flicker of interest in Inkheart as it first seems that it will be about readers, books and fantastical adventures between fiction and the real world. I happen to think of myself as a Big Reader currently on hiatus while I focus my free time on a hundred years’ worth of movies I haven’t yet seen, so anything that reminds me of what fun it is to read is notionally laudable. Alas, as Inkheart goes on, it quickly retreats to show its true origins as yet another YA film adaptation, with the narrative compromises that this implies. It quickly turns into yet another quest fantasy, and the various ideas that stems from the film’s premise can’t quite save it from narrative ennui as it goes through the motions of so many other YA adaptations of the past decade. (No, Inkheart doesn’t get early-adopter bonus points. Not any more.) Despite his charm, Brendan Fraser can’t save the film, nor can Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany or Jim Broadbent. Despite everything in its arsenal, Inkheart only manages a tepid impact, and disappointment may be its most striking feature.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) In genre-literature fandom, there is this incredibly unfair cliché that the average “mainstream” literary novel is nothing much more than a college professor writing about upper-middle-class ennui, tawdry affairs, dysfunctional families and pretentious pseudo-philosophy. In this light, The Ice Storm hilariously become an example of the form despite a few references to the Fantastic Four comic books. It is about upper-middle-class ennui and tawdry affairs, as husband and wife from different couples have an affair that is exposed during the course of the film. It is about dysfunctional families, as the kids of those two families have their own experimental games. The pretentious pseudo-philosophy comes from contemplating comic books, unsatisfying lives and unusual weather events, with a side-order of communal swinging at seventies key parties. The film is sure to resonate with many viewers—the 1973 setting is convincing down to the awful fashion, Ang Lee directs with a sure hand, and the film has a strong cast of then-established actors (Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, all very good) with a miraculous near-handful of then-rising names that have since done much (Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes). But it doesn’t take much distancing to find The Ice Storm slightly ridiculous even as the film reaches for grief in the face of a freak death and familial reconciliation after trying times. From a non-sympathetic perspective, the clichés accumulate at a furious rate, the dramatic heft of the death isn’t earned and the film concludes without having much, everyone still being the same flawed characters than they were at first. But hey—it got nominated for a bunch of awards, so it must be good, right?
(In French, On TV, October 2017) I did not approach Martyrs with the best of intentions. I’ve never been partial to gory horror, and Martyrs comes billed as a closing instance of the thankfully short-lived (2001–2008) “New French Extremity” horror subgenre, which combined extreme graphic violence with intentionally transgressive themes and premises. It certainly delivers on both counts: The gore is extreme in-between graphic shotgun deaths, ripping metal hooks from the head of a still-living victim and having the protagonist flayed alive. More philosophically, there’s claptrap about pain being the way to transcendence and a shadowy organization deliberately torturing young women in order to get a glimpse at the afterlife. How droll. At the very least, it’s worth acknowledging that Martyrs is somewhat more ambitious than your usual run-of-the-mill horror. Intuiting that putting some distance between myself and the movie was the way to go, I deliberately put Martyrs on as background while I was doing something else (if you must know: sorting a stamp collection, which should provide you both with a hilarious visual and a telling yardstick through which to gauge my relationship with horror cinema) and never regretted the choice. I’d complain that the new Québec-based “FrissonTV” horror channel does not provide close captioning, but that’s not such a big deal in a movie in which half the dialogue is made of women screaming or weeping. What I had not realized prior to seeing the film is that it’s a France/Canada co-production, and so it’s visibly shot in an isolated house in rural Québec, features some familiar French-Canadian actors such as Catherine Bégin, Robert Toupin and wunderkind director Xavier Dolan (!!!), leading to a mishmash of slipping French/Québec accents that do distract a bit. To say that I did not enjoy Martyrs is as much an understatement as it is an inevitability: This is not a film meant to create positive feelings and you can almost feel writer/director Pascal Laugier begging condemnation from non-gorehound audiences. I’ll grant Martyrs a few things, though: the film may be stuck in its trash aesthetics and nihilistic intentions, but it’s almost refreshingly impossible to predict as it hops from female kidnapping to home invasion to creature horror to torture to secret-society conspiracy. It’s a wild ride made even worse by the extended graphic sequences of extreme torture—as a representative of the New French Extremity, it takes that last word seriously. Most casual viewers (i.e.: not horror fans) are guaranteed to quit watching before the end, casting dark aspersions upon the filmmakers and anyone who likes the film. As for myself, my curiosity is satiated, my stamp collection is in a slightly better shape and I can live knowing that I’ll never have to watch Martyrs again.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) The Black Mirror series has been on my radar as a must-see for years … but considering the nature of its acclaim as a modern-day Twilight Zone, it took a while for me to muster up the right frame of mind to tackle it. It really doesn’t help that the first episode is basically a hazing ritual. Here’s one of the best SF shows of the past decade … and its first episode (“The National Anthem”) asks its audience to consider a scenario in which the British prime minister is coerced to have sex with a pig … live-streamed to a population ghoulishly eager to see it all. And rather proved prescient years later when a related story emerged about British PM David Cameron. Yup, there’s Black Mirror all right: a blend of technological speculation and old-fashioned horror at what humans are capable of doing. The horror is that the worst monsters are us. It doesn’t really get any better in the brilliant second episode (“Fifteen Million Merits”) in which the grind of daily work and the lure of celebrity are literalized in a satirical portrait of society. Fortunately, the third episode (“The Entire History of You”) is more humanistic but no less terrifying as a technological innovation exposes very human foibles. Again: no need for monsters when humans do such a good job at self-destructing and being so evil to each other. Black Mirror is not a series to watch lightly. It can be stomach-turning, eerily prescient, and implacable in its extrapolations. The quality of the scripts is high, and the production values are more than adequate. Best of all, this first season is a mere prelude to (so far) two seasons and ten other episodes of similar material. Show-runner/writer Charlie Brooker has managed to capture current anxieties about technology and give them further life is terrifying imaginative scenarios. Don’t miss Black Mirror … but be ready to feel depressed for a while after watching them all.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) Dramas like The Kite Runner remind me of unflavoured health food: it’s good for you, no one looks strangely if you say you’re eating it, but it feels completely joyless. Respectable but blandly ordinary, this drama set in Soviet-then-Taliban-occupied Afghanistan sees an Americanized refugee going back home to re-immerse himself in childhood memories and rescue a friend once betrayed. It’s as high-drama as you’d expect from a guilt-fuelled movie featuring kids and while it does work without being unbearably manipulative, The Kite Runner still leaves viewers with the sentiment of having seen something unnecessary. Adapted by director Marc Foster (who’s done much better and much worse) from a script by David Benioff from a best-selling novel from Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner checks off most of the boxes of middlebrow popular drama. Ethnic flavour? Yes. Universally applicable themes of guilt and redemption? Sure. Likable actors, faraway setting, adequate directing? Yes, yes, yes. And yet the end product feels manufactured, as safe as its kind of story can be. I expect that everyone’s mileage will vary on this one.
(On TV, October 2017) Given the subject matter (a man discovers that his romantic flings all go on to find their true love), it’s no surprise if Good Luck Chuck plays significantly coarser than the average romantic comedy. And therein lies a problem, because for all of its potential as a hard-R erotic comedy, the film is only too happy to pour itself in the usual R-rated rom-com mould, using its soft-R rating as an excuse for crudity rather than an honest treatment of its premise. It’s also ludicrously unaware of anything close to female agency. The case-in-point example scene has to do with a conventionally unattractive employee of the lead character throwing herself at him in romantic desperation—Good Luck Chuck plays the scene for laughs whereas there’s a lot more to explore here if it had the guts to do so. If the film works, it’s almost solely because of the charm of the lead actors—while Dane Cook may not be highly regarded as a stand-up comedian, he does play a likable lead, and Jessica Alba is up to her usual standards as the lead heroine. Still, there are plenty of missed opportunities—I kept waiting for a revelation that the lead female character’s impressive klutziness was a curse equivalent to the protagonist’s own, but that seems to have been forgotten somewhere along the way. The film picks up one lone point for having been obviously shot in Vancouver—the entrance to the aquarium is instantly recognizable even to a tourist. Otherwise, Good Luck Chuck is the kind of instantly forgettable romp, less obviously offensive than the slew of gross-out comedies from the early 2000s, but wasting so many opportunities along the way that it becomes vexing the moment you think too long about it.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) It takes a long time for Fist Fight to even become likable. Part of it has to do with it ludicrous set-up, in which two stressed-out high school teachers in a bad school end up planning to fight each other after the last day of classes. In order to get there, you have to posit a school (and not even a particularly downtrodden school) in which both students and teachers seem to exist in a hellish post-apocalyptic bacchanalia. If anyone wondering when pedophilia would become a major comic point in a Hollywood comedy, well, wait no longer. (Also; if you were waiting for Christina Hendricks to flip that scene from Lost River and tell someone “You need a knife… You need to cut him from his forehead all the way down to his chin,” then Fist Fight is there for you.) Then there’s Charlie Day, whose comic persona is irritating at the best of times—putting him up against a stoic Ice Cube as the antagonist is asking for divided loyalties in which we wish for the so-called protagonist to be beaten down hard. It takes a long while, using the most basic emotional drivers, for us to actually start caring about the so-called hero. While Fist Fight does manage to compress its plot in a scant few hours, its innate meanness can be hard to take at times. Fortunately, a bunch of those problems resolve themselves by the time the third act comes by and the two teachers eventually do (after a few false starts and fake-outs) starting hitting each other. While the result isn’t high art, it may be enough to make you forgive the hard slog of the film’s first hour. Ice Cube, as usual, glides through the chaos with an intact persona. Jillian Bell makes the most of a reprehensible character, which is saying much considering that most of the characters are irremediable. Otherwise, there isn’t much here to remember. R-rated comedies tend to blur together these days and Fist Fight doesn’t escape the trend.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) The real collisions in Collide are the mismatch between the film’s cast and the pedestrian script … or the way it comes alive during its action sequences, only to wallow in far less exciting clichés once the guns and the cars quiet down. In many ways, few things distinguish Collide from countless other mid-budget action movies that clutter up the VOD release calendar: the script is a collection of familiar plot elements arranged in excessive thriller melodrama, featuring literary allusions that never add up to something like subtext or depth. It takes place in Europe, for lower shooting budgets, foreign financing partners and slightly exotic atmosphere … not to mention the bonus xenophobia considering that the two protagonists are American expats. What sets Collide apart are the presence of living legends Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins as duelling crime lords—money is obviously the answer as to what they’re doing here, which doesn’t make the end result less intriguing to watch. Hopkins is on autopilot while spouting classical literature references as an upper-class crime lord, while Kingsley is also in familiar-persona mode (viz; Lucky Number Slevin, Sexy Beast, even Iron Man 3) as a crude trash-talking nouveau-riche kingpin. Seeing them face off is sort of interesting despite the lacklustre film around them, including generic leads played by Nicholas Hoult and Felicity Jones. Fortunately, another highlight comes whenever the action starts and the cars start racing each other on the autobahn. Director Eran Creevy seems far more interested in fast mayhem and Collide has at least a modest charge for action junkies. It’s also a modest step up from his previous Welcome to the Punch, although there is still a long way to go. Collide doesn’t really escape the limitations of the mid-budget action thriller, but anyone who risks a viewing should find one or two things to break the tedium.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) There’s an interesting twist at play in A Monster Calls, in which a young boy’s grief for his terminally ill mother is explored through spectacular use of fantasy imagery. It’s not a genre fantasy film per se (in that you can argue for a rational interpretation if you try hard enough), but it’s certainly a drama enhanced with genre elements. The downside of such a distinction is that the film is never as dull as when it’s strictly realist—it’s when the story goes on imaginary tangents and a gigantic yew tree starts intervening in the plot that A Monster Calls is at its best. The stories told to the boy are executed though very stylized animation, and those moments are the highlights of the film … until the ending, in which fiction, dreams and strong emotional reactions all come together in a big catharsis of a conclusion. The art direction of the film is spectacular in those fantasy sequences, and the way the 3D art seamlessly blends itself in scene transitions is reminiscent of the best that 2D animation had to offer. Acting-wise, Liam Neeson impresses with a strong vocal performance at the tale-spinning tough-love tree. Otherwise, director J.A. Bayona’s skill in balancing the various components of A Monster Calls are on display here, all culminating in a conclusion much stronger than the rather pedestrian set-up would initially suggest.