(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) I am (appropriately enough) of two minds about Adrift—on the one hand, it’s an inspiring (true-ish) story of survival in a hostile environment, as a woman finds herself adrift on a small damaged sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a near-useless companion for company. On the other hand, we’ve seen pretty much the same thing already with All is Lost, and combining that with a Fight Club-type twist isn’t quite nearly enough to patch things up. Good special effects and an able performance from Shailene Woodley (who must have enjoyed the opportunity to break out of her YA dystopian persona), plus slick directing from Baltasar Kormákur, do mean that the film goes by smoothly and convincingly recreates the harrowing conditions of the ordeal. Still, the narrative sleight-of-hand (which becomes obvious if you’re paying close attention) does smack of audience deception and an attempt to add more juice to a story that may or may not have needed any. Even when it’s desperately flashing back and forth in an attempt to keep audiences invested in between the sappy romance and the far more involving survival story, there’s a bit of desperation to Adrift, almost as if it wasn’t entirely confident in its own material. Fortunately, Woodley is there to save the day and carry it home.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) At a time when big-budget American cinema is often reduced to formula-scripted blockbuster entertainment, it can be interesting to go see that the medium can do in other countries. Shoplifters is almost defiantly unusual in how it approaches its own characters and story—featuring a reconstituted family of grifters and low-level thieves struggling to make a living in low-class conditions. It’s quirky, unusual in how it advances its story and oddly sympathetic at times. There are a few big secrets lurking behind the façade of the characters as presented in the first few minutes, but the core sentiment of the film remains—a family by choice, loving and united even if not exactly a model for anyone else. The ending, alas, gets worse and worse for everyone—this isn’t meant to be a heartwarming film. Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has his own outlook on life and the result is a humanistic vision of being poor in money, yet being rich in relationships. It’s almost as good as a novel, and presented in an understated way that leaves us to make conclusions. I particularly liked the unglamorous performances from Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as the leaders of the family. While Shoplifters does feel a bit too long, there are a few engaging subplots going on with the ensemble cast. The film earned a lot of western attention when it made the Academy Awards shortlist in early 2019, and we can see why.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) The post-apocalyptic road trip is a surprisingly long-lived tradition in American fiction (especially written), helped by the vast expanses of the continental United States highway system and a built-in dramatic device in motivating the trip across dangerous distances. At its best, How it Ends clearly exploits this tradition, heightening its drama with two lead characters united by a thin single thread and giving us a few disaster-filled thrills along the way. Despite the film’s modest budget and consequent limitations, director David M. Rosenthal throws in a few effective visuals here and there, and the growing suspense of knowing whether the bickering characters will achieve their goal (even on a quest more likely to be quixotic than reasonable) is familiar but effective. Forest Whitaker adds a lot of gravitas to the quest, while Theo James eventually develops into a likable character. Roughly two thirds of the way in How it Ends, I even started thinking that this was quite enjoyable in its chosen genre, despite several annoying flaws and dumb decisions along the way. The inclusion of a Native American character (Grace Dove, perhaps the best thing about the film) felt like a solid decision, the episodic structure of the film still felt fresh and the mystery of the catastrophe having struck America was still unfolding. Then the last act rolled in and the film nosedived. (There will be spoilers for the rest of this review because you can’t talk about what’s wrong with the film without digging into it.) I wasn’t really expecting the film to offer a definitive explanation about its catastrophe—obviously inspired by The Road except far from being as meaningful, How it Ends just throws too many things on-screen to make sense and I would have been satisfied with a trite “Aliens!”—but this is the least of the film’s problems. Not only does it jettison a likable character two thirds of the way through, it introduces a new character fifteen minutes after the resolution of the main quest narrative and fifteen minutes before the actual end of the movie, effectively adding an extra act to a film that didn’t need one. It’s not a fun act either, darkly hinting at the protagonist’s fiancée having been seduced by a romantic rival and holy cats we didn’t need that stuff at that point in the film. This is the final touch that highlights all the nagging annoyances with the film—How it Ends overplays most of its cards and ends up satisfying no one with an open-ended ending. In the tradition of movies that don’t stick their landing, it puts the rest of the film in question—the way society collapses within twenty-four hours after the Internet stops working and the government can’t be bothered to reassure the population. (Well, this may be the most realistic part of the movie—although I note that once more Canada is offered as an answer. The film was filmed in Winnipeg, something most clearly seen in a scene with a train sporting Canadian National livery.) The lack of characterization becomes far more important once the post-apocalyptic quest is dismissed and we dive into character drama. I originally thought that something may have happened during the production of the film, but checking reviews of the original script (which was a Black List favourite for 2010) suggests that the flaws of the film were baked in from the beginning. How it Ends makes some elementary blunders for no clear reason, and shoots itself in the gut when a simpler, cleaner approach would have managed to keep things together.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) So … take Captain Fantastic, remove most of the memorable characters, much of the fun dialogue, all the humour and the entire trip/clash south of the Northwestern Forest and you have a good idea of what’s left in Leave No Traces. Revolving around a father and daughter living a life far away from civilization in a Portland-area forest, this is a movie about a veteran’s inability to fit in society … and the growing rift between him and his teenage daughter who is longing for connections. It’s not much of a plot, and so the film is told in lengthy, sparse camera setups, with society acting as an intruder, opponent and seducer to the characters. Ben Foster plays the traumatized, ill-fitting veteran, while Thomasin McKenzie has a more interesting role as a 13-year-old increasingly unhappy with his father’s make-no-roots, leave-no-traces approach to life. It’s a quiet film, too quiet for me (I’d rather re-watch Captain Fantastic for a similar take) but decent enough in its chosen approach. Ultimately, though, I suspect that I will have a hard time recalling any of the film in a few weeks from now.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) As a quick look through this web site will reveal, I spent a substantial part of the 1990s and 2000s reading military techno-thrillers (including many submarine thrillers) and I have kept a lingering affection for the subgenre, even if it hasn’t been particularly served well on the big screen. There’s usually one submarine thriller every year or two, and I probably saw all of them. Lately, both Phantom and Black Sea had their issues, but neither were the kind of slam-bang contemporary military thriller that the genre deserved. Hunter Killer, on the other hand, is almost exactly what I was looking for: A slick movie version of those submarine technothrillers, blending military valour with pulse-pounding action sequences in the service of a plot riffing off today’s headlines. (Well, maybe yesterday’s headlines: The US president here is a competent blonde woman while the Russian president is a likable and humane statesman. But nobody would believe the current reality in fiction.) The crux of the plot has to do with a coup in Russia, and American forces lending a hand through a submarine crew in the water and Special Forces operatives on land. Gerald Butler stars as an unorthodox sub captain, the kind of square-jawed hero so prevalent in those kinds of novels. A capable cast of supporting characters (Gary Oldman is unrecognizable as always, but also Michael Nyqvist, Common, Linda Cardellini and Toby Stephens) helps flesh out a cheerfully plot-driven film, which has a major submarine battle in the firth thirty minutes and then goes on to other, bigger action sequences. It’s all familiar and cool and highly enjoyable thanks to Donovan Marsh’s direction, even though I suspect that people without my accumulated baggage of experience with the subgenre may not react so positively. As for me, though, I got almost exactly what I was looking for in that kind of movie. Butler has earned quite a bit of critical scorn for his choices, but in most of his recent films (Den of Thieves, Geostorm, the Has Fallen series), I find that he’s playing a very kind of specific role in a very specific sub-genre, and that he’s pretty much perfect for what the filmmakers are looking for. I can’t guarantee that other viewers will find in Hunter Killer the same kinds of thrills that I did, but I’m surprisingly happy that it exists, and that it brings to the big screen the kind of expansive thrillers that I like.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) Despite the film’s slow burn, it doesn’t take a long time to realize that The Invitation is not going to be a fun kind of film. As it opens with our protagonists making their way to an isolated Los Angeles home and hitting a coyote, the sombre way the protagonist puts the animal out of its misery sets the glum tone for the rest of the film. It doesn’t get any better despite a few forced cheers: Our protagonist is being invited back to his ex-house by his ex-wife, years after the death of their son. Other friends are also invited, but strange clues accumulate: one of them is missing, the door remains locked and the windows are blocked by iron railings. Then they’re showing a video in which a cult celebrates the death of one of their own. By the time the protagonist screams DON’T DRINK THE WINE, we’re well past the point when all guests should have left en masse. Going from sombre drama to a more exciting thriller, The Invitation nonetheless stays attached to its characters far more than the average thriller. By the time the expected deaths pile up, it’s a slightly different kind of thriller than we expect. (Although we can understand the moronic characters a bit better for not leaving, this isn’t a blanket excuse for them not doing so.) Shot with a low budget featuring generally lesser-known actors, it does let director Karyn Kusama play a bit with the form, although not (maybe regrettably) committing to either a horror or revenge fantasy third act. There is a bit of a chill in the film’s last shot, but it does feel like an implausible afterthought rather than something with wider implications. I still enjoyed The Invitation, but wouldn’t exactly bring myself to recommending it.
(Google Play Streaming, December 2019) Exhilarating and revelatory, Free Solo is about one man and one mission: rock climber Alex Honnold and his 2017 quest to climb Yellowstone’s El Capitan 900-meter-high mountain with his bare hands—no rope, no safety net. It sounds crazy enough and the film not only underscores what fantastic feat of human strength this is, but also demonstrates, through painful practice runs, how dangerous some specific moments of the endeavour can be. Beyond the climb, we also get a glimpse at Honnold himself—his geeky personality, his budding relationship with a girlfriend understandably concerned for his life (as other alpinists die during the making of the feature) and his drive to go against the mountain itself. While the footage captured for the documentary is magnificent (drones have really opened the possibilities offered to low-budget filmmakers, although the best footage is captured by fellow climbers tethered not too far away), there is an added complication in having the cameramen discuss their concerns that their very presence may cause additional problems for Honnold. It’s the portrait of an outsized ambition, certainly, but also a gradual change in character for the man at the centre of the documentary—at one point, he begins and abandons a climb, feeling that it’s not the right time. (It’s a move that earns the strong approval of everyone else, some of them saying that this reinforced their belief in his sense of safety.) The last twenty minutes of the film detail the successful ascent, we viewers having been adequately prepared for the dangerous steps of the process, with our relief mirroring the one of Honnold’s companions. A neatly wrapped package making a difficult sport accessible to lay viewers, Free Solo deservedly earned an Oscar for best feature documentary, and it has the white-knuckle thrills to show why.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, December 2019) I first saw Star Trek: First Contact in theatres on opening night, in melodramatic circumstances sitting next to a girl I liked and a guy who I thought liked the girl I liked. (She, on the other hand, didn’t like either of us, which is pretty much all you need to know.) I thought the movie was quite good, and it’s a relief to revisit the same film decades later under far less trying emotional circumstance to find out that it has held up decently well in the interim. Generally regarded as the best TNG Trek movie and deservedly so despite the underwhelming competition, First Contact plays on two of Trek’s biggest power chords, bringing together the Borg and time travel for an adventure that takes us back to First Contact between humans and Vulcans, and the Borg taking over the Enterprise. There’s a nice blend between hard-core body horror and comic relief in the result, with separate plotlines striking a surprisingly complementary tone throughout. The film is more action-packed than previous instalments, and even gives us a large-scale Federation-versus Borg space battle to begin with. Patrick Stewart has a plum role as a Jean-Luc Picard almost going mad with revenge, and he shows off his muscles in the film’s action climax. Most of the characters are used effectively (including Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden), and First Contact is a good big-screen take on the Enterprise-D/E crew. While I still have several issues with the details of the plot or the sad situation of post-WW3 Earth at the time, the overall result is worth a look and ends up being the last Trek movie (and even-numbered one) worth watching between 1996 and the 2009 reboot.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) There is an insanely risky bet at the heart of I Feel Pretty that will either make or break the film, and it boils down to whether you will enjoy seeing Amy Schumer pretend that she’s an unattractive woman for more than ninety minutes. The abrasive comedian may not be the model of a rail-thin actress, but she is—at worst—Hollywood homely, the likes of which would be considered good-looking in real life. (The best line anyone has ever said about Schumer is Jennifer Lawrence, upon learning that Schumer considered her “the hottest ideal version of herself,” saying, “you’re not ugly enough, and I’m not hot enough to pull these jokes off.”) I Feel Pretty, however, is that joke, except with Emily Ratajkowski instead of Lawrence as the protagonist (Schumer) suffers a head injury that convinces her that she’s suddenly her own ideal of beauty and proceeds with the consequent self-confidence to score a job, a boyfriend and several life lessons—especially when the effect wears off. The premise is probably the weakest part of the film—the best sequences simply show two people beginning a sometimes-awkward romance, with all the tentative steps, feints, self-doubt and exhilaration that this implies. There’s a half-hearted attempt at a romantic rivalry that goes nowhere, along with a lot of cruder material that plays in Schumer’s comfort zone and no one else’s. She’s the lead here—to the point where it’s possible to wonder if anyone ever tried to rein her in during the film’s production. From this movie and others, it’s clear the Schumer is a gifted performer—but when she writes her own material, she tends to showboat or create an unconvincing pity party. As such, I Feel Pretty is middling material, a bit frustrating because of the very mixed messages it sends (even in satire, it does remain a prisoner of beauty standards as a shortcut to confidence, ability or charisma—it never seriously questions those assumptions) and the glimpses at a far better movie smothered in between the rest of the material. After similar issues with Trainwreck and Snatched, I’d be more curious to see Schumer in a supporting role, preferably in a script where she doesn’t have creative input.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) The problem with working in a tradition is not only that the tradition may be flawed, but that you need a push outside the tradition to see what’s wrong with it. Let me explain. Taken at face, undemanding value, The Kissing Booth is no more and no less than your usual high school romantic comedy, with your usual clumsy heroine battling various obstacles on her way to getting the right guy. It very clearly aligns itself with 1980s examples of the subgenre by casting Molly Ringwald as a mom, and features at least one song forever linked with those movies. In many ways, it also includes familiar plot elements for that tradition, what with the heroine working at sanding off the edges of a womanizing guy all too willing to punch anyone else interested in her, or telling her what to do in no uncertain terms. If you’re fresh off a time capsule from the 1980s, The Kissing Booth would be a perfectly acceptable example of the form, following tradition all the way to the smartphone age. But now is not the 1980s, and teen romantic comedies of that era are sometimes horrifying by today’s standards. Having a crush on someone willing to punch out any romantic rival is played for laughs but would be terrifying in real-life—and while The Kissing Booth once acknowledges the inherent violence of its male lead, it stops there without elaboration. There are other annoyances as well: while I’m not the most socially progressive viewer around, there is one jarringly outdated moment in the movie where students are directed to a kissing booth with clearly heteronormative directives. But I can’t help but compare The Kissing Booth with other teen romance movies of 2018, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before offers a significantly better choice, while Love, Simon is so much better than either of them that it doesn’t even compare. I will tolerate quite a bit of idiot plotting in teenage comedies, but The Kissing Booth seems badly conceived from the get-go. It’s a bit too well-directed to be terrible (and lead Joey King does have a certain homely charm) and I strongly suspect that older viewers such as myself will be sorely tempted to give the film a pass on account of having seen much worse during their own teenage years, but a comparison with other contemporary movies is not to this film’s advantage.
(On Cable TV, December 2019) Considering writer-director Peter Bogdanovich’s fondness for Hollywood history, it really shouldn’t be a surprise how the opening moments of Paper Moon almost perfectly recreate depression-era filmmaking, down to the black and while flat cinematography and acting styles. Of course, this being an early-1970s film, this façade slowly crumbles as the film goes on, as it features a con artist and his daughter merrily scamming their way through the Midwest. Ryan O’Neill here holds one of his best roles, opposite his own daughter Tatum O’Neil. The tone is a semi-comic one with a big sentimental ending—although you have to be indulgent as our heroes scam widows and sell illegal booze back to their owners. The episodic structure of the film works relatively well as characters enter and exit the story—Madeline Khan is a welcome sight as an avowed gold-digger with no perceptible loyalty. It also builds to an emotional climax, as the film gradually makes its way from tragedy to comedy to drama. The interplay between father and daughter is quite nice, and Tatum may be more impressive than her father (who, should it be noted, rarely made an impression as an actor) in an Oscar-winning role. I’m not so sure that Paper Moon deserves its presence on the various best-of lists that I’ve seen, but then again, I’ve had worse movie-watching experiences.
(Second Viewing, On Blu-ray, December 2019) My memories of Star Trek: Generations were not good, but it took a while for me to remember why. The first hour-or-so of Generations is not bad, especially if you’re watching it shortly after the previous instalments. After a decent prologue that sees Kirk sacrifice himself once again, the focus of the series switches to the second series, the entire cinematography of the Trek series gets a visual upgrade and we’re back in the comfy aesthetics of The Next Generation. Plus, there’s Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis to look at. From a movie perspective, the series also gets an upgrade from 1980s to 1990s techniques, with much-improved special effects, better camera movements and a less stage-bound style. There’s even a good (if repetitive) space battle midway through. The early signs of the film’s problems are in the lacklustre script—Finally giving Data his emotion chip leads to scenes that go for cheap humour over wittiness, and as the plot of the film snaps into focus, it’s obvious that this is the least of the film’s Big Ideas that are wasted away. By the time Generations is over, Kirk is dead, the Enterprise-D is destroyed and Data has emotion … except that the scales are so small that it’s hard to reconcile the majesty of those ideas and the way they’re tossed off. The entire thing climaxes on … a metal platform in the middle of a desert—not exciting! The passing of the torch between both iconic crews, years in the making, ends up being a disappointment. With twenty-five years’ perspective, the Enterprise has been destroyed roughly five times in thirteen Trek movies—to the point when it’s now feeling like a cheap trick more than a momentous occasion. In fact, if we’re going to reflect on Generations in retrospective, it’s hard to avoid thinking that the TNG crew has only had one good movie in four attempts—while I’m upgrading Generations slightly in my mind, it’s still well under First Contact, and quite above the abysmal Insurrection and Nemesis. There were, of course, a few other factors harming the TNG movies—Paramount was almost paralyzed in fear of doing anything too crazy in the movie series with DS9 and Voyager running in parallel, and that may explain the timid and self-defeating lack of panache in those instalments. Generation at best manages a draw between good and bad, mostly because whatever is good (and let’s not deny the fun of having William Shatner and Patrick Stewart teaming up) is in service of a throwaway plot. It’s half-successes like Generations that lead otherwise well-meaning people to fanfiction.
(Criterion Streaming, December 2019) Because I’m a sucker for punishment and the life of a movie reviewer is meaningless without pointless challenges, I started watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me completely cold. I knew it was a follow-up to a TV show which I hadn’t seen, I knew it was classic David Lynch even though I don’t particularly like classic David Lynch, and I made no effort to brush up on the Twin Peaks mythology even though I knew that it got strange. To say that I was confused is putting it mildly. Halfway through Fire Walk with Me, as the film switched from off-beat cop comedy to something far more sinister, I gave up and pulled up the Wikipedia plot summary, links to the Twin Peaks storyline and whatever other hand-holding I could stand. My watching experience improved significantly after that, although I was pleasantly surprised that Fire Walk with Me is generally self-sufficient if you learn how to ignore the weirder moments. There is a definite story being told here, even through the pointless digressions, leisurely pacing, and awkward insertion of characters who, I’m presuming, pop up from the TV show. I even enjoyed some moments of the film—mainly the first fifteen minutes, with its deadpan depiction of two policemen venturing in hostile territory for an investigation. There is a sequence featuring a dancing woman (and later interpretation) that pokes fun at Lynch’s own propensity for hermetic symbolism, and it does feel like a welcome bit of comedy in an otherwise increasingly tragic film. Lynch isn’t my cup of tea, obviously, but to end Fire Walk with Me with a virtual draw rather than outright loathing can be called a bit of a victory for both of us. On the other hand, I’m nowhere closer to even wanting to watch the TV show in either its original 1990s seasons or recent revival edition. There are pointless challenges, and then there are masochistic endeavours.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) Life is so unfair. If Mowgli had shown up out of nowhere, boldly showcasing impressive animal CGI characters and its significantly darker take on the classic Rudyard Kipling book, I’m pretty sure that it would have been better received and at least released in theatres to show its generous budget. But life is not fair, and Mowgli took so long to be completed (launched in 2012, shot in 2015, released in 2018 after many delays) that it got scooped by Disney’s 2016 The Jungle Book (launched in 2013, shot in 2014, released in 2016)—which featured even-better animal CGI characters and a slightly darker take on the Kipling book. In other words, Mowgli got left holding the bag, and feeling like a runner-up in the race it began. Warner Bros understood that, and sent the film off to Netflix after a perfunctory theatrical release for award contention. After seeing the result, comparisons are inevitable and usually to Mowgli’s disadvantage—despite slick direction from motion-capture legend Andy Serkis, impressive CGI and a grounded take on the material, Mowgli simply doesn’t feel as good as the other movie. The CGI animals don’t have the polish of the Disney film, the script doesn’t have the same finely honed touch of the Disney film and the tone is far too dark compared to the Disney film. Life is not fair: I’ll be among the first to say that Disney’s monopolistic dominance of the American box-office is a terrible thing, and that there should be vigorous competition from other studios. But if I can offer some humble guidance to anyone obviously not listening, the point should be to avoid taking on The Mouse on its own turf. Do something wildly different, something that Disney will not do rather than to offer something that feels like a reheated leftover. Mowgli, to be blunt, doesn’t have the spark that it needs to distinguish itself, and it had the rotten luck of betting on elements done better in the most directly comparable film. It’s not fair, but there it is.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2019) There is a surprisingly fine line between an intriguing premise and a dumb idea, and Extinction boldly vaults from one to another. Twists make sense if they answer questions rather than create new ones, and they work even better if the rest of the film works well without the twist. Alas, Extinction is the kind of movie that paints itself in a corner, with only the twist to save the day. It does pain me to acknowledge that it doesn’t work—I do like Michael Peña and Lizzy Caplan a lot, but they’re not particularly served well here. Peña is stuck in an intentionally dumb character (the twist partially but not satisfactorily explains why), while Caplan struggles in an intentionally shrill and unlikable character. But actors and their characters are the least of this premise-driven film, in which a standard alien invasion story is upended to be revealed as something else. That could have been intriguing, except that the revelation only makes the first half of the film feel increasingly dumb—and the longer you spend trying to justify the twist, the less sense it makes. Even acknowledging that movies aren’t built on logical consistency, there is something particularly insulting in Extinction’s premise that just doesn’t work. Even if you grant it one or two willing suspension of disbelief, there are still two or three move unresolvable issues that torpedo any attempt to make sense of it. It especially doesn’t work well considering that the conclusion of the film is about as stupid as anything else I’ve seen this year. I should probably add details, because anyone reading this capsule review probably won’t believe me. But Extinction frankly exasperated me, and I don’t want to spend any more time with the movie even in reviewing it. It’s just dumb, unsatisfying and if I’m clueless enough to revisit it in the future then I’ll deserve to re-experience my disappointment all over again.