(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) Whew—In today’s bland unchallenging environment for movies aimed at the multiplex, it’s almost refreshing do see a film designed to divide audiences. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! may be a lot of things (and I suspect that it may not even understand what it is, and may offer deliberate wild goose chases) but it’s certainly not made to be safe, likable or bland. Conceived on a deliberately metaphoric register, it does not take refuge in mimetic realism or conventional plotting: it’s metaphors piled upon metaphors, with Christian symbolism blended with horror-movie visuals, audience-alienating images and a steadfast refusal to offer anything like explanation or comfort. It’s very pretentious and charmingly daring at once, challenging audiences to dislike it. The film has more emotional than narrative meaning, and that can lead to some profoundly self-contradictory feelings about the film in the same reviewer. Reading about Mother!, I was convinced that I would hate it: I don’t react well to non-narrative films, I’m far too quick to label experimental work as pretentious, and the multiplicity of interpretations about the film had me rolling my eyes—especially as the Bible metaphors were being sized up for fitting. But watching it was far easier than I expected—there’s a progressively frantic rhythm to Mother!, and the fascination of seeing what was going to happen next (especially in the film’s most nightmarish moments) easily outweighed the desire to have it make sense, especially once properly forewarned that the film escapes most rational interpretations. While I know that there’s a lot of what Mother! tries to do in experimental arthouse cinema, I rarely see those films, and they don’t usually have the means (the name actors, the special effects budget, or Aronofsky’s expertise as a writer/director) to execute their full vision. And Mother! is indeed about a highly personal and idiosyncratic direction. I actually dislike quite a bit of what writer/director Aronofsky’s is doing here—I think that his use of Jennifer Lawrence compounds the growing exasperation I’ve got with her overexposure (including her being usually too young for the roles she’s being asked to play, although this may not count in a fable such as here), I think that he’s deliberately creating false leads in an attempt to create perceive depths, and I think that the violence goes too far. And yet, and yet, I do end up with a growing liking of the result, even as I’ve renounced to even try to make sense of it. Mother! remains a defiantly unusual ride, and those are all too rare in multiplexes nowadays.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Hitman’s Bodyguard would end up being another one of those run-of-the-mill action/comedy hybrids, with decent but not overwhelming amounts of both and a tendency to aim for the middle in a bid to make sure that the comedy crowd doesn’t get too disturbed along the way. But within moments, it becomes obvious that this film is going to play the action angle as hard as it can, showcasing a far bloodier kind of violence than is the norm for these movies. The action is a bit more elaborate and frantic, and the body count is definitely higher to the point of settling for a very dark kind of comedy. (Behind the scenes, much is explained by the fact that the film had its origin as an action drama, with the comedy added after casting was finalized.) Fortunately, in other ways, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does play it safer: by featuring Ryan Reynolds as the bodyguard and Samuel L. Jackson at the hitman, the film can rely on both actors’ established screen personas, Reynolds quipping like the best of them while Jackson curses up enough of a storm to be commented upon by his partner. Their back-and-forth is as good as these things usually get. Salma Hayek also brings a bit of expected spice as a fiery character cheerfully playing into her own persona and cultural heritage—it’s familiar, even stereotypical stuff, but it certainly works. I also liked Élodie Yung, but that’s because I like Élodie Yung in general—her character is a bit blander than the others, perhaps because the film’s overstuffed with strong personalities as it is. And that goes for the film as well—while it would have been a bit better without so much bloodshed, the result is surprisingly engaging, even in the middle of yet another car chase and familiar banter. Amsterdam makes for a fun backdrop, the action is furious, the comedy works and the actors deliver what they’re hired for. I don’t think that The Hitman’s Bodyguard will have much of a long shelf-life (although a sequel is coming, so that’s that), but it’s an entertaining enough diversion—although, once again, I could have used a bit less blood along the way.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) When I say that I’m impressed at this Ghost in the Shell live-action remake, please read until the end of the sentence: I’m impressed at how this Ghost in the Shell live-action remake manages to take all the high points of the original anime film and spin them into a new and entirely boring whole. It’s practically impossible to imagine someone taking the best part of a classic film and making such a mediocre product out of it, but this film is proof of the seemingly-impossible. Whitewashing controversy aside (and yes, the film would have been a bit more interesting with a non-Caucasian lead), Scarlett Johansson is the least of the film’s problems when it’s the entire production that is so forgettable. (At least she gets to burnish her credentials as this generation’s emblem for post-humanism). While the production design has its own high points before delivering exactly the same thing as so many wannabe-cyberpunk films do, it’s the witless and unsurprising script that really lets the film down. In-between this and Snow White and the Huntsmen, director Rupert Sanders is proving himself a surprisingly untalented purveyor of mediocre dreck. There’s been a glut of SF movies and series lately about post-humans, and while the original Ghost in the Shell remains an impressive classic, this one is a tepidly warmed-over of familiar ideas weakly played. Dour and humourless roughly twenty years after bleakness has been overplayed in mid-future Science Fiction, this remake is destined to rapid memory oblivion. I not only dislike it because of my devotion to the original: Even on its own, this Ghost in the Shell is an average take on stale ideas.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) I frankly wasn’t expecting much from a return to the Jumanji universe: The original is uneven enough (something not helped at all by its copious but primitive CGI effects) that a sequel seemed unnecessary—it felt even less necessary when it became obvious that it was going to focus on videogames, a topic as overexposed as could be. But I’ll be the first to admit that I was unexpectedly charmed by the result: Anchored by the likable Dwayne Johnson, supported by the careful use of often-grating comic actors as Kevin Hart and Jack Black, and further enhanced by a great performance from lesser-known Karen Gillian, the cast is up to the film’s surprisingly witty script. Not only revisiting the Jumanji concept through familiar videogame mechanics, Welcome to the Jungle wrings comedy out of shifting character relationships, body identity questions, and videogame tropes addressed with some wit. While the structure is schematic by design and some plot developments can be seen well in advance, much of the film’s interest is in the moment-by-moment beats. It does deliver a bit more than expected, which is already not too bad considering the tendency of modern reboots, sequels and rip-offs towards mediocrity.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) There are a couple of interesting things in Papillon, not the least of them being a narrative structure that never quite goes where you think it does. Adapted from a true story, the film spends much of its first half obsessing about its protagonist’s escape from a tropical prison … only to keep going and going and going well after that escape fails and then another succeeds. We follow the main character through a few decades as he lives various adventures on his way to recapture freedom and yet more evasions. Steve McQueen makes for a likable action protagonist, with Dustin Hoffman acting as an interesting intellectual foil to his character. Filmed in lush Caribbean locations, Papillon does have exotic scenery and unpredictability on its side, although the overall impact may not be as strong as expected. Surprisingly oneiric at times, which more hallucinations than you’d expect. It does feel long, trying and unpleasant—something not diminished by the film’s taking place in a prison or on fleeing through desperate environments. I would have liked to like it more, but felt surprisingly uninvolved by everything.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) I liked the original Kingsman film, but with a number of significant reservations: writer/director Matthew Vaughn can turn out action set pieces like few others, but his sense of humour is crass, and his fondness for unpleasant gore (matching the source comic) takes away from what would otherwise be a more fun experience. Many of those highs and lows are also on display during Kingsman: The Golden Circle: the visual design (wow, that villain’s lair!), energetic direction and colourful characters are all great good fun … if it wasn’t for such over-the-top gore as many characters being fed through a meat grinder with subsequent cannibalism. Eeew. Or the heave-inducing “plant the tracker” sequence plot-engineered to be as gross as possible. It’s things like that which make it impossible to recommend the film without numerous qualifications, or to justify the acquisition of a Blu-ray edition. Still, at other times this sequel matches or outshines the original. Plot-wise, the film’s mess: predictable set-pieces grind the film to a halt when they’re dull, and speed by when they’re fun. The American Statesmen offer an amusing contrast to the Kingsmen, expanding the madcap world of the original. Protagonist Eggsy is all grown-up, slick and suave, meaning that we get to spend far less time with the chavs and he gets to play the Bond role model he became at the end of the first film. One likable character makes it back to the sequel only long enough to be killed, but on the flip side we’ve got Colin Firth back with charm, Pedro Pascal making a great impression, Julianne Moore chomping on scenery as an unusual villain, no less than Elton John being turned in an action hero, and Halle Berry bringing her best to the screen. Some of the action scenes are fun in more or less exactly the same way as the original: Pseudo one-take action sequences with plenty of speed ramping are once again at the forefront of what the film has to offer in-between needless gore and adolescent tittering. I don’t usually bother with star ratings because they’re overly reductive, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle offers another failure mode for them: When the good stuff in the film is forth four stars out of five and the bad stuff is repellent enough for warrant a sole star, a three-star compromise doesn’t quite seem to accurately present a good idea of the final result. Can Vaughn grow up so that we don’t have to approach his next movies with a ten-foot pole and an apprehensive stance?
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) It’s been a frustrating ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean express: While the first film remains slick blockbuster entertainment, the second and third entries in the series quickly became self-indulgent to the point of nearly drowning their considerable assets in too much chaff. Given that the fourth film was surprisingly unremarkable (with surprisingly cheap production values considering its record-breaking budget), who knew what to expect from a fifth film? As it turn out, Dead Men Tell No Tales becomes a bit of a return to form. Never mind that Johnny Depp now plays Jack Sparrow as a buffoon with few of his previous redeeming qualities, or that the action sequences don’t make a whole lot of sense: the fun of the series is back, and the vertiginous set-pieces have a visually imaginative kick to them. Javier Bardem plays a great villain, Geoffrey Rush is back in a reluctantly heroic role, and Kaya Scodelario is not bad as a heroine. Perhaps the worst thing about Dead Men Tell No Tales is the way it suffers from the contemporary tendency of blockbuster movies to over-complicate everything from the visuals to the plotting details, to the point of risking incoherency whenever the slightest detail is out of place. A slightly shorter, substantially cheaper movie would achieve as much, of not even perhaps more. But go tell that to Disney, which is holding on to the series as one of its reliable cash cows. At least the series is now headed up again … although who can really tell how it’s going to be before the end credits of the next film?
(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) One of the things I like best about cinema is its ability to make us sympathize with the oddballs who don’t quite fit in their surroundings. This goes double for teenage coming-of-age dramas such as Lady Bird, a film that strongly revolves (to the point of not even resolving the dramatic arcs of supporting character) around the self-consciously quirky Lady Bird, a teenager about to escape her Sacramento high school for the call of bigger-city higher education. It’s her last year in a town too small for her, but her cultivated eccentricity doesn’t mean that she’s a saint—her propensity for self-harm is spectacular, and much of the film’s plot is about her learning to like the people (mostly family) that she has pushed away. It’s frustrating, endearing and occasionally very funny (except when it isn’t). The protagonist herself is a good representation of the lengths through which teenagers will go to in order to establish themselves as distinct, much to their own expense. It’s a familiar film genre, but actress-turned-director Greta Gerwig manages to make it all seem fresh and interesting all over again, with substantial contributions from Saoirse Ronan (playing much younger than usual) and Laurie Metcalf in a complex role as a mom who can be her daughter’s worst enemy and best friend. I wasn’t expecting to like Lady Bird very much—and for much of the film, the vast gulf between the protagonist’s modest skills and her opinion of herself exasperated me to no end—but it eventually won me over. Even the affectionate portrayal of Sacramento is charming. While I’m not planning on re-watching Lady Bird any time soon, I think that a second viewing may be funnier knowing that everything will be all right in the end.
(On TV, July 2018) I like musicals a lot and fifties musicals are among the finest every made, but I do have a marked preference for musicals made for the screen rather than adapted from the stage, and I seem to have a specific lack of affinity for anything adapted from Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musicals. South Pacific is a case in point: A big bold musical set on the Pacific front during World War II, it features a young nurse taken with a creepy older Frenchman, with various hijinks from the US soldiers stationed nearby. It’s not that funny, which is a shame considering that the film’s most interesting moments are its funniest ones. Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi star, but Ray Walston is a highlight as a hapless soldier, while Juanita Hall is fantastic as a strong-willed islander woman. As is often the case, the film opens strong with good upbeat numbers (“Bloody Mary” and “There’s Nothing Like a Dame”), only to become duller and more romance-focused in its second half, with some comic interludes along the way. The cinematography of the film is a bit too out-there for the material—the use of strong colour filters is particularly annoying in washing out scenes that would have been perfectly good without them. There’s enough here to make South Pacific worth a watch for fans of musicals, but it hasn’t stood the test of time very well—especially considering that it was one of the top-grossing films of 1958.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Let me put it this way: If this was 2010 and we’d never seen The Avengers—let alone every single MCU film since then—then Justice League would be exceptional. But it’s not 2010 and we’ve seen nearly everything that it has to offer already. I’m not necessarily saying that the film is terrible—just mediocre. I actually like quite a lot of it: I think the actors are generally good, with special mention of Ben Affleck as a grizzled Batman, Gal Gadot in a third outing as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as an imposing Aquaman and quite a few known names in supporting roles. I’m particularly happy that directing duties on Justice League were transferred midway through from Zach Snyder to Joss Whedon—while the reasons for the transfer were tragic, the result is a film that moves away from the dour atmosphere of the DCU-so-far and closer to the Marvel-brand of lighter, more entertaining fare. As a result, the film does have more rewatachability value than previous film. Still, let’s not overstate the “lighter and funnier” angle: Justice League is still too heavy for its own material. It’s also flawed by the nature of its story and Superman’s godlike status: much of the film is spent waiting for Jesus/Aslan/Supes to show up and resolve the problem through sheer brute force because that’s the kind of superhero power fantasy that it is, and the supporting characters may be colourful but they don’t get to save the day. It’s only one of the many things that do limit Justice League’s appeal eight years after The Avengers: It’s boldly catching up to what’s been done well already, and the déjà vu is significant.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) We’re in the middle of an interesting second-generation Stephen King cinematic renaissance, as long-time fans of the author are becoming filmmakers and producers with enough pull to propose and execute King-related projects. It helps that King writes enough books in a decade to rival another author’s entire bibliography, but recency is not a factor with It—a second adaptation of one of King’s landmark 1980s novels, a book so big and split in two eras that this first film only shows up the first half of the story. I, frankly, wasn’t expecting much: King adaptations span the whole spectrum of cinematic quality from silly to sublime, with most settling for middling horror. But this first half of It is actually quite good. It doesn’t try to be anything else but a straight-ahead horror film, but when it pulls the stops it gets surprisingly intense. Making effective use of a medium-sized budget through a lot of special effects, a large cast of main characters and a focus on a reasonable amount of plot in order to do it justice without cramming too much stuff in a too-short film. Director Andy Muschietti delivers a few inventive and iconic set-pieces (which always helps in distinguishing a good horror film from an average one) and gets good performances from his teenage actors. (The film also removes the most problematic scene of King’s book, saving us from endless debate about justifying a bad creative decision.) The result is enjoyable, spooky, nightmarish at times and feels somewhat complete even without the modern-era half of the book. I’m quite looking forward to the follow-up.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) I’m not that fond of the whole summer-of-personal-growth subgenre, and so there are definite limits to how much I can like Call Me by Your Name. This being said, much of the film’s first half is remarkably successful at making us enjoy a summer European holiday in picturesque settings, with bright people enjoying each other’s company. It’s a really interesting atmosphere, and it does much to compensate for the film’s slow pace—in fact, the pacing is part of the film’s charm. Then the plot takes over and the film becomes substantially less interesting, although director Luca Guadagnino does have a good eye in executing a rather good script from veteran screenwriter James Ivory. Pacing and subject matter means that Call Me by Your Name is almost by design an actor’s showcase, with Timothy Chalamet establishing himself in a single film as a young actor to watch. I’m not that comfortable with the romance, although my discomfort has more to do with the maturity difference between the leads. Still, the film wraps up with a decently wistful last five minutes (featuring what may be the most open-minded father in the history of cinema). Call Me by Your Name is clearly designed for another kind of audience, but I liked it more than I thought, and actually quite enjoyed moments of it, even if more as a travelogue than a romance.
(On TV, July 2018) Mood counts for more than I care to admit in watching movies, and so it is that after a lengthy run of older black-and-white classic movies, I was hungering for something like the 1980s crime thriller antics of To Live and Die in L.A. despite significant reservations about much of the film’s execution. Delving in the nitty-gritty of money counterfeiting, this William Friedkin movie goes to Los Angeles for a sordid tale of crooked cops, unabashed villains, not-so-victimized girlfriends and hazy sunlight. William Petersen turns in a career-best performance as an adrenaline-addicted cop who throws away morality and decency in a quest to take down his partner’s killer. That killer turns out to be played by William Defoe, in an early, perhaps less intense performance but one that shows how handsomely the actor has aged since then. Other surprising names pop up here and there, from John Turturro, Robert Downey (Senior) and a short-but-striking appearance by Jane Leeves. The influence of the mid-eighties couldn’t be more obvious with its garish credit sequence and Wang Chung-scored synth soundtrack—it’s one of the film’s more dated features, and it’s about as annoying as the gratuitous gory violence that mars a film that’s far too exploitative to deserve its gore. The story is a game played with clichés—the three-days-to-retirement veteran, the out-of-control hero, the hidden informants, the sunny California haze … it feels like both a spiritual cousin to Miami Vice and a prototype for Heat — even the much-lauded counter-flow car chase feels less impressive now that it has been copied so often. Still, for all of its grim narrative (in which a rogue cop causes an endless parade of trouble and death for everyone), To Live and Die in L.A. is surprisingly entertaining, and even the over-the-top eighties aesthetics eventually work in the film’s favour. There’s even a substantial thematic depth in the way the protagonist is revealed to be a revolting anti-hero—so much so that his unsentimentally portrayed fate is a mere stepping stone to even greater character corruption. In doing so, To Live and Die in L.A. becomes something more than a mere rearrangement of genre elements, but a reassessment of our toxic relationship with them. That’s quite a bit more than I expected in tackling the film, predisposed mood eventually giving way to honest interest in what the film was attempting.
(On TV, July 2018) Even for sympathetic cinephiles like myself, watching silent movies can often feel like an imposed chore. Some of the 1920s dramas can be a test of anyone’s patience with lengthy running time made even worse by title cards, with overdone acting, primitive cinematographic grammar, hackneyed stories and outdated social mores. But there are exceptions—comedy movies à la Buster Keaton work on a purely physical level, and genre stories still work on pure plot and ideas. So it is that The Phantom of the Opera may have most of the problems of 1920s silent cinema, but it still works because it tells a familiar story with enough grace and style that it’s hard to resist. You probably know the plot if only because Gaston Leroux’s novel has been remade once in 1986 as a massively successful musical (can you hum the title tune? I’m doing so right now), which was then turned into a 2004 movie. But the original still has a kick of its own—relatively fast paced at less than two hours, it also features Lon Chaney as The Phantom (watch out for when he takes off the mask!) and a period atmosphere that still feels quite enjoyable. The big romance at the heart of the plot is timeless, and it’s actually fun to see the phantom wreak havoc in the Paris Opera House. There aren’t that many silent movies that still carry this much pure non-comic entertainment power. On a historical level, this very first version of The Phantom of the Opera is also notable in that it was enough of a financial hit that it motivated Universal Studios to launch a number of horror projects that eventually led to the classic “Universal Monsters” franchise—The Phantom of the Opera is sometimes mentioned as part of the franchise, although they’re usually talking about the 1943 version in doing so rather than the now-public domain 1925 one. (And if you want to get a glimpse at the complex horrors of silent-film preservation, have a look at the later half of the film’s Wikipedia page. Geez.).
(On TV, July 2018) The 1941 original version of The Wolf Man is rightly considered one of the big-five Universal Horror monsters (alongside early-thirties Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man), so it’s a bit of a surprise to find out, throughout the film, how much of it seems to differ from our codified understanding of the werewolf monster. This film (scripted by legendary SF writer Curt Siodmak) does bring together werewolves and silver, but not necessarily shape-shifting under a full moon—which is a later innovation. As with many Universal Monsters foundational texts, there is a substantial romantic component at work here, and a cinematography that bridges between German expressionism and American film noir. Lon Chaney Jr has quite a presence as the titular wolf man, anchoring a potentially silly story into something with romantic gravitas. The film has surprisingly good makeup and special effects, though they come in fairly late in the movie. Despite some mythology weirdness compared with the contemporary version of the werewolf monster, The Wolf Man did create much of the myth and so remains a mandatory viewing for horror fans—fortunately, it happens to be a decent movie still.