(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) The good news, I suppose, is that the Young Adult Science Fiction field has grown tired of endless dystopias and now seems ready to take on other clichés. Things like star-crossed romance between a Martian-born teenager and his earthling pen pal. Considering the focus here on teenage protagonists and the romantic pretext to the film, it’s really no surprise to see that The Space Between Us doesn’t hold up as serious Science Fiction: the mistakes start early and get increasingly implausible with time, and even the knowledge that we’re not supposed to worry about those in a film made for romance aren’t enough to bring us back into the story. Then there’s the severely formulaic and forgettable nature of the film’s plot, including its buddy robots, dumb plot-driven choices, fish-out-of-water comic bits and lovers on the run. It’s all not just familiar, but done without much grace nor wit. It ends with a conclusion that you could have guessed after seeing the poster. Good supporting actors (Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino, for instance) can’t save the film from terminal boredom. Granted, I’m more than twice the age of the target audience for The Space Between Us … but still: would it be too much to ask for a minimum of competence even for younger audiences?
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Once you’re settled Daddy’s Home‘s daddy-versus-step-daddy conflicts in the first film (with Mark Wahlberg battling it out with Will Ferrell), what’s left to do? Bring in their fathers, of course. Following a surprisingly similar course to Bad Moms 2, this sequel brings in veteran comic actors to act as the fathers to the first film’s protagonists, while moving the story to the Christmas season to heighten the stakes. Of course, the fathers are even more extreme version of their sons, meaning that there’s a whole new level of embarrassment to be achieved. As far as family comedies go, Daddy’s Home 2 is pretty much the living embodiment of the usual formula. The situations are generic, the characters are superficial and while there is some fun to it all, it’s very familiar material throughout the entire film. While Mel Gibson and John Lithgow do get their moments, John Cena once again ends up stealing every scene he’s in. Otherwise, there isn’t much more to say about it—if you’ve seen and enjoyed the first film, then this is the same with added complications.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) If you had asked around 2005, McG would have been identified as an up-and-coming director capable of handling big blockbuster productions: After Charlie’s Angels and its sequel Full Throttle, McG had proven his ability to deliver the kind of action comedy that Hollywood can never get enough. But then his movies got worse. Never a prolific director (one every three years), his career suffered the back-to-back-to-back blows of Terminator Salvation, This Means War and 3 Days to Kill, neither of which were particularly well received nor did much box-office business. So what’s a Hollywood outcast to do? Turn to Netflix, of course, and that’s where we find The Babysitter, a smaller-scoped action comedy in which a teenager discovers that his babysitter leads a demonic cult and intends to sacrifice someone. Like, while he’s supposed to be sleeping. The next hour or so has the predictable running-around-the-house, ganging-up-with-the-neighbour, taking-down-the-Demonists stuff, handled with a nice little edge of self-awareness and fast-paced frame-breaking. The blend of comedy and horror is generally successful, although the film occasionally feels a bit too vulgar and gory for its own good. McG’s fluid direction is a return to form for him, while Samara Weaving does just fine as the titular babysitter. The Babysitter is not a respectable or profound film—but it’s exactly the kind of exploitation horror comedy that popped up in the more self-aware 1980s, and it’s quite a bit of fun to watch.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) “Haunting” is the cheapest adjective you can affix to any ghost story, but there’s a fair case for it in trying to describe A Ghost Story. For one thing, it’s a slow, methodically paced, nothing-moves-too-quickly story from the point of view of the ghost. As our protagonist dies, he remains trapped into the house, seeing his wife mourn (by eating an entire pie) and then leave. He’s not too fond of the next owners and does his best to scare them. Then, well, who knows: We travel in a future metropolis presumably built upon the space occupied by the old house. Then back in time for the first settlers on the site of the house. This circular trip in time achieved, the ghost comes to grip with his nature and can let go, leaving his bedsheet behind. A Ghost Story sounds insane when summarized (and the trailer makes it look like the most ridiculous thing ever made with the bedsheet-with-eyeholes ghost) but I found it unexpectedly effective upon watching. Soothing, even. There’s an unexpected profundity to writer/director David Lowery’s film that even surprised me—considering that I usually strongly dislike these kinds of films, I was surprised to be swept along with the wordless narrative. The time loop is what wraps the entire film in a nice little bow, giving it the necessary push in otherworldly status. I’m not sure I’d recommend A Ghost Story (and even after watching the film I still see how silly it looks) but it does feature great images and a unique atmosphere.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Oh no, four guys go hiking in the woods in another country! Oh no, one of them gets injured! Oh no, they take a shortcut off the map! Oh no, they see weird things! Oh no, strange people surround them! Oh no, I don’t think this is going to end well! … that’s right, The Ritual is just about the most ordinary film about the most ordinary horror elements you can think of. Rafe Spall stars, David Bruckner directs and the audience endures. There’s a whole lot of nonsense in the film that makes it hard to care about any of it—the moment that hallucinations come into any horror movie, then it’s a free license for the filmmakers to do anything and everything, considerably lowering the stakes. A description of this film’s monster ends up causing a big “so what”. The Ritual isn’t that scary, isn’t that funny, isn’t that anything. It’s thoroughly mediocre in the most average sense of the word. I suppose it will do the trick for those looking for familiar thrills—I mean, it’s not that bad—, but it doesn’t really doesn’t go anywhere beyond that.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I won’t try to soft sell it or mince my word: I strongly disliked Good Time. A dirty muddy crime drama featuring Robert Pattinson as a small-time crook trying to get his developmentally challenged brother out of trouble, it’s the kind of movie that is so unpleasant that you can’t wait for it to end. While I’m ambivalent about the film’s plot (rereading the summary on Wikipedia had me thinking that a good movie could be made from it), it’s the nightmarish execution that grates on my serves. The images are muddy and ugly; the camera can’t step away from the characters and ends up constantly in their faces. The trip through the low-class Queens underworld is more unpleasant than exhilarating, and the irritating music score doesn’t help. Just about the nicest thing I can say about the film is that, for the first time, I saw Pattinson on his own as an actor rather than being reminded of his earlier more famous role (you know the one)—With his thug attitude and facial hair, I could see the distinctive character rather than the actor. On the other hand, I’m really not that happy with the Safdies Brothers’ direction or writing—Good Time all seemed so pointless that I couldn’t wait for it to end.
(On Cable TV, August 2018) If, while watching The Snowman, you find that the plot makes no sense, then don’t worry about whether you’re having a stroke—rest easy knowing that according to the film’s director, its troubled production meant that a good chunk of the script was never shot. The film, as released, was cobbled together from incomplete material. How that happens (if that’s what happened) is a fascinating question as of yet unanswered, which is somewhat amazing considering the impressive pedigree of the cast and crew. And yet no one, not director Tomas Alfredson, not Michael Fassbender, not Charlotte Gainsbourg, not J. K. Simmons, not Toby Jones, not pretty Swedish landscapes can actually make the film any good. Not that missing narrative pieces are the film’s sole or biggest problems: Even the best production schedule still would have led to a silly and implausible film in which yet another serial killer gets off on making snowmen after killing his victims. (Actually, as a Canadian with substantial snowman-building experience, I’m somewhat dumbfounded by the whole snowman-after-killing shtick—snowman weather is very specific, and it only happens a few days per year, unpredictably linked to the weather. Any budding serial psycho building his killing schedule around near-zero-degree snowstorms would face near-impossible logistical challenges.) The Snowman gets worse the deeper you go in its details and subplots, as many of them don’t get any kind of resolution … and at some point you have to confront Val Kilmer’s terrible, overdubbed performance. Interestingly enough, the film’s botched handling of now familiar but still overdone thriller elements lay bare the ludicrousness of modern written thrillers, as they endlessly remix the whole troubled-detective, crazy-killer, sordid-society elements. It takes a ham-fisted interpretation of the formula to make us realize how stupid the whole thing has become. On the upside, The Snowman was such a derided failure (both commercial and critical) that we will be spared any further entries in the series.
(On Cable TV, August 2018) Some movies become famous because of the actors that are in it, but All the Money in the World is a rare reverse example, famous for who’s not in it. Namely Kevin Spacey, whose sexual misconduct became widely publicized in the short span of time after his important supporting role in the film as J. Paul Getty was shot but before the film was released. Rather than shrug their shoulders and release the film as-is, the producers, along with veteran director Ridley Scott, decided to take another riskier path: Recast the Getty role with Christopher Plummer and reshoot all the scenes involving the character. This isn’t quite as insane as it sounds, considering that the character is mostly confined to mansion rooms in one of the film’s subplots. And it worked: Not only was Scott able to replace one significant actor in a ridiculously short amount of time while the film was nearing its release date, but you really can’t tell in the finished product: It’s as if Plummer had been there the entire time, and his performance is rock-solid enough that he ended up nominated for an Oscar. In comparison to the production drama, the story in All the Money in the World seems almost pedestrian, portraying the kidnapping of the grandson of one of the richest men in the world back in the 1970s. There’s an intriguing re-creation of mid-seventies Italy, dark machinations by an incredibly rich man not inclined to negotiate with kidnappers, and some funny business between the kidnapped man’s mom (Michelle Williams, better than usual) and the specialist hired to get him back (Mark Wahlberg, rather ordinary). The drama is solid even though the film itself feels sombre, ponderous and overlong in the middle. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the finished result is a demonstration of the way excessive wealth alters the world around it, twisting human relationships, corrupting individuals (the Getty patriarch is really not a nice person) and inviting predators to make their moves. Alas, not quite enough time is spent on this idea, as the film flirts with romance and spends a lot of time kidnapped by its own subplots. (It doesn’t help that the film has numerous deviations from the historical record.) It’s not a bad movie, but it could have benefited from a lighter and shorter touch. But then again there’s Plummer delivering yet another great performance.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Prison movies hold an everlasting fascination, and perhaps the biggest thrill for law-abiding audiences is to be placed in a situation where an ordinary guy is sent to prison, and then learns how it works well enough to succeed inside the walls as well as outside. So it is that with Shot Caller, we follow an ordinary guy who, thanks to some fatal drunk driving, is sent to prison for a short while. Unfortunately, he has the bad luck of being sent to prison in the late-2000s, a time of supermaxes, racist jailhouse gangs and reprisals on the families of convicts. Meaning that once he gets on the treadmill, he has no choice but to go the distance. It gets dark. Darker than Felon (2008), although not as dark as the stomach-churning Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017). Nikolaj Coster-Waldau impressively handles the transition between architect intellectual and muscle-bound prison gang leader. Unlike prison movies of an earlier era, Shot Caller depicts a sordid environment that worsens its inhabitants but doesn’t seem to call for reforms, letting the story speak for itself. It’s familiar material (as I’ve said: there have been a lot of prison movies over the years) but it’s handled competently and the ending manages to find just the right spot between tragedy and hope.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I first read Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game decades ago, but I was able to remember a surprising amount of it while watching its straight-to-Netflix adaptation. Thanks to writer/director Mike Flanagan (following up on a series of increasingly successful horror movies), the adaptation is surprisingly faithful, a feat made even more amazing given that the novel is as interior-driven as anything else in King’s biography. After all, how can you portray a woman being chained to a bed and left alone with her husband’s corpse for days? What Flanagan does, aside from the obvious use of flashbacks, is to literalize the heroine’s fantasies and delirious visions: Suddenly, the deceased husband gets up, talks to her and gets her to express her feelings. And then, later, there are other, more tangible horrors: A dog, then something else… And still, throughout, the terrors of being left to die alone. The thirst, the cold, the isolation. Carla Gugino is near a career-best performance in the lead role, being on-screen for almost the entire duration of Gerald’s Game and being asked to carry a wide range of emotions. Bruce Greenwood does get a mention for his not-so-brief time playing a not-so-good husband. The film is so close to the novel that it does share a few issues later on, namely the collision of a good-enough premise with a serial killer story that doesn’t entirely serve the rest of the plot. I was dubious about it when I read the novel so long ago and I’m still dubious about it now. Still, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t add much, so what is left of Gerald’s Game is still remarkable. Flanagan has done much with little (the film has only barely a dozen roles in a largely single location), delivering quality chills and thrills in a compelling package. This is probably his best film yet, and it suggests even better things in the future.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Aaargh. There’s a really good Science Fiction movie struggling to get out of Downsizing, but the one we see, as written and directed by Alexander Payne, isn’t it. I am, for once, not going to comment on the biological nonsense of reducing humans to a height of 13 cm. I will grant the movie that one big deviation from reality. Where I’m not going to be so lenient, however, is in forgiving the direction ultimately taken by the film’s story after the shrinking is explored. While the earliest parts of the film do have their moments and intriguing details, the film soon goes off in a direction that is markedly less interesting than anticipated. Rather than keep going in the direction of social criticism, Downsizing settles for the end of the world and, in going so, seems to lose its way. The film’s first act does seem to set up a far more ferocious film that the one that follows: It puts all the pieces in place for a reckoning about the sustainability of “small wealth” (considering that it depends on temporary externalities and a precarious agreement with “the bigs”—consider the havoc that even one common house cat could wreak) and an even deeper satire of capitalism run amok … but no. None of the film’s disappointment comes from the actor—Matt Damon is a perfect American everyman, Christoph Waltz is an intriguing Lothario, and the entire film is stolen by Hong Chau as soon as she shows up. Alas, it’s the script that fumbles midway through and doesn’t recover as much as misdirects away from the themes it sets up in its first half. What a shame. At least Downsizing tries something and fumbles, which is more than we can say for most movies these days.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Owing to its Oscar nominations, I read a bit about The Florida Project and, frankly, wasn’t expecting to like it a lot. I’m not a big fan of downtrodden characters, poverty dramas or indie-budget wonders. And yet, despite expectations, I was gradually taken by the film and particularly the way it juxtaposes the dream sold at the nearby Disney Park with the misery shared by its protagonists. I strongly suspect that much of the film’s ultimate impact (and it does get intense toward the end) has a lot to do with being the father of a girl of the same age as one of the film’s protagonist. There’s something that I can’t quite handle at this moment about kids in danger (whether immediate of structural, the later of which The Florida Project acutely depicts) that short-circuits a lot of my critical instincts. Still, there’s no denying that writer/director Sean Baker knows what he’s going after: The depiction of desperately poor people shuffling from one hotel to another is gripping. Giving a father-figure role to Willem Dafoe is a great idea—after so many villainous roles, it’s simply a joy to see him as a purely good character, and he got nominated for an Oscar as well. Alas, the rest of The Florida Project plays on an entirely different (and worsening) register, pitting childlike innocence against adult doom until there’s nowhere else to go but in fantasy. Whew. It concludes with a devastating ending, and yet the only one appropriate for the film.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) There has been a lot of criticism aimed at Netflix’s Death Note movie from fans of the original anime, but the irony is that for viewers coming in fresh without knowledge of the film’s inspiration is that Death Note, taken by itself, is actually not bad—it feels like a throwback to the kind of high-concept horror movies circa 1995–2005. Something like Idle Hands, perhaps, or more specifically the first Final Destination. Consider this: A teenager gets possession of a book in which he can specify who will die and how. From that simple premise stem a few complications: a bloodthirsty demonic personification of the book coaching the protagonist or maybe trying to take over his soul; media attention toward a sudden slew of high-profile deaths (as, naturally, our hero scribbles all sorts of high-profile criminals in the book); a genius-level detective tracking down what he thinks is the source of those mysterious deaths; and the inevitable romantic complications of a high-schooler getting his hands on life-and-death power. I understand from the numerous complaints that the anime is better, smarter, stronger, faster and possibly tastier than the film adaptation, but as a first-time viewer I don’t have much to complain about: while Death Note does tie itself up in logical knots in trying to fit the premise in a two-hour movie, it’s intriguing throughout, and ends with a nice fillip that shows more imagination than the usual horror film confrontation. Nat Wolff is fine as the protagonist and Lakeith Stanfield is interesting as Detective L, but it’s Willem Dafoe who seems to be having the most fun voicing demon Ryuk. Director Adam Wingard leads the material competently, but he’s a bit stuck with the original material—even newcomers such as myself can see the compromises made in order to distill it to a movie and whitewashing it to American audiences, although my suggestion would have been to run even rather away from the source material in the hope of ending with something that doesn’t feel like a half-baked compromise between weird source material and the requirements of a self-contained movie. Until the sure-to-follow sequel presumably addresses some further plot threads, I’m relatively satisfied by the result—which is probably what Netflix aimed for when it backed its production.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Mark Ruffalo makes for an unlikely star, but you can’t deny his hangdog charm. He’s one of the two biggest reasons why Begin Again work, the other one being John Carney’s uncanny ability to make great musically dominated movies. I watched Begin Again largely because I was intrigued to see if Carney would match the effectiveness of Once and Sing Street. I shouldn’t have worried. Begin Again takes place in New York City and targets a disgraced record label executive (Ruffalo) as he discovers a new talent (Kiera Knightley, possibly miscast) that he nurtures to success. There are plenty of things here that could have gone wrong: it’s a very familiar story, after all, and under rougher hands it probably would have ended with a mismatched-age romance between the two. But Carney knows better, and after some initial romantic tension, the mentor/mentee relationship proves to be enough, especially when both of them gain from the experience. The centrepiece of the film, as with other Carney movies, is a sequence in which the characters come together for the sheer fun of making music, shooting a video on New York City rooftops and backstreets. While, overall, Begin Again doesn’t have the same punch as Carney’s earlier Once, it’s a lot more fun and colourful. And while Knightley isn’t much of a signer, she does have chemistry with Ruffalo, while Ruffalo himself has enough charm to power the rest of the movie by himself. While Begin Again may not age all that well, it does illustrate the music industry at the beginning of the 2010s, poised between the decade-old traditional system and the disruptive influence of the web. It’s still a worthwhile movie, and a nice link between Carney’s other movies.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Despite my best intentions, I continue to have a hit-and-miss relationship with critically acclaimed horror movies. Sometimes I fully align and claim the film’s greatness to the ends of the Earth (that’s you, Babadook), sometimes I keep staring at the screen thinking that I’ve missed something (that’s you, VVitch). It Comes at Night falls squarely in the second category: While others have praised its take on the aftermath of a viral apocalypse, I kept wondering until the end credits what was so special about the film. It’s certainly not the premise, which is undistinguishable from dozens of other movies in just the past few years. It’s not the darker-than-black tone with no likely survivors, as that has become a solid horror cliché. It’s certainly not the pacing: saddled with a slow, deliberate and agonizing rhythm: It Comes at Night feels interminable even at 91 minutes. The acting talent isn’t bad (with special notice to Joel Edgerton and a thoroughly de-glammed Carmen Ejogo) and there’s clearly an intentional aesthetic at work from writer/director Trey Edward Shults in the way it shows a family disintegrating thanks to external and internal pressures. But considering the everybody-dies ending, the large number of unexplained ambiguities and the misanthropic tone, all kinds of viewers—casual and jaded alike—may come to feel that it asks too much in return of very little payoff. I’ll respect the intention behind such a measured psychological horror movie far more readily than a shlockfest, but the end result is depressingly similar: It Comes at Night is a film that doesn’t feel as if it’s worth watching. Certainly not twice, maybe not even once.