(On TV, December 2018) The only thing surprising about The Santa Clause 2 is that it actually took eight years for a sequel to be completed. While the script does show some ingenuity in milking the premise even further, the innovations stop at the end of the first act, and the rest is a mechanical exercise in completing the arcs outlined early on. This film adds romance, as the protagonist must find a Mrs. Claus before long. (I choose not to ask what happened to the previous Mrs. Claus.) Alas, the film also adds an antagonist of sort under the guise of a Robot-Claus who (as they usually do) turns evil and must be stopped from ruining Christmas, in keeping with the other two or three things that could also ruin Christmas. At least the romance is cute (featuring Elizabeth Mitchell) and the imagined fantasy world of the series is expanded to include other mythical creatures. (I wonder how much of it was an inspiration for a similar group of characters in Rise of the Guardians.) It does still work, although we’re a clear step down from the original film. Best seen as close to Christmas as possible, as the film doesn’t have much else than Christmas cheer to rely on.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) Christmas day is a good day to watch as many versions of A Christmas Carol as you can tolerate, and my second go-around is the 1938 version of the story. One might think that the film may not compare to more recent adaptations of the same Dickens story, but as it turns out A Christmas Carol has one major advantage up its sleeves in terms of timelessness: it was already old and historical by the time it was filmed, and so doesn’t suffer as much from decades gone by. This 1938 version has dated but fascinating optical effects, Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, and a no-fuss no-muss approach to a straight-up adaptation with a few frills as possible. Compared to other versions of the story, this one clocks in at a very efficient 69 minutes. Hurriedly made by MGM in mere weeks as a family film, it’s considerably lighter on the potential darkness of the original tale. And that’s why we can enjoy multiple takes on the same material.
(On TV, December 2018) Amazingly enough, I managed to avoid watching The Santa Clause for nearly twenty-five years. But that ended today, on Christmas Day, as I took advantage of a recorded movie marathon for the entire trilogy. Part of why I waited so long was the conviction that I didn’t really need to see it: the premise was clear, the trailers had enough of the main jokes and with Tim Allen in the lead, I wasn’t really worth expecting more than the obvious. I still believe these things after watching the movie, but there’s really no substitute for actually watching the thing. As almost everybody knows, this is the movie where Tim Allen kills Santa and becomes cursed to become his replacement, complete with weight gain and management responsibilities over the entire North Pole toymaking complex. Beyond the premise of an ordinary man becoming Santa, the chief appeal of The Santa Clause is in trying to justify and expand on the Santa myths with semi-realistic explanations. Even when it just doesn’t make sense (you’d think that the first people to notice Santa Claus’ existence would be the parents themselves — “Hey, where did these gifts come from?”) it works hard at making sense, and you almost have to like the movie for making so much effort in justifying its fantasy. Tim Allen, despite my lack of affinity for the actor, does make a credible everyday man, and helps ground the film even further. I’m not that happy with the rather obvious divorced-parents subplot, but the rest of the film is undemanding and successful at it. Is it as bland as I thought it would be? Yes. Did I have a reasonably good time watching it? Also yes. I suspect that Christmas cheer got the better of me.
(On TV, December 2018) OK, Christmas Day: I’ve spent time with my family, unwrapped the gifts, ate too much, said my greetings—NOW HIT ME WITH THE MOVIES. Let’s get started with the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. This one goes through the usual motions of the usual story, although with a few additions, most notably in detailing Scrooge’s business years and so the process that transformed him from an ordinary young man to an elderly misanthrope. Alastair Sim here plays Scrooge, and the performance is as good as it needs to be in the role. What may be surprising to modern audiences is that this version pulls few punches in being dark and horrifying—the ending redeems it all, but the way there can be dispiriting and grim. Scrooge does amount to a decent take on the material, but there’s no time to say more because I’ve got other Christmas movies to go through today before December 26 rolls around and they all become as stale as last night’s milk-and-cookies.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m still not sure how or why I did an almost complete about-face on Wes Anderson’s work at the time of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I’m happy to report that Isle of Dogs doesn’t change my mind: It’s a whimsical, highly enjoyable film that continues to show why quirky filmmakers such as Anderson remain an essential part of the cinematic landscape. Boldly dashing into a fantasy version of Japan where a city has exiled all dogs to a nearby island, the film describes a group of dogs as they meet and provide assistance to a boy looking for his own dog on the island. As would befit an Anderson film, the setting is a blend of 1950s aesthetics, 1984s themes, 2010s technology and timeless shrink-wrapping. The stop-motion animation helps a lot in clearly establishing the off-kilter lack of realism of the premise, with new development being greeted with acceptance even as outlandish as they are. Robodogs? Sure, why not. The tone of the film is a quirky deadpan, sure to reach a few viewers and leave others completely cold. There’s some great voice talent in the mix, with Edward Norton in the lead. Unusually enough for someone who doesn’t take much interest in soundtracks, I found myself quite taken with the distinctive percussion-heavy score from Alexandre Desplat. As with most things with the film, reaction is likely to be idiosyncratic—I absolutely love some segments of the movie, and found myself grinning ear-to-ear at frequent moments, but I can see how it would not work for others. I’m not sure what possessed Anderson to give himself so entirely to Japanese imagery for the film, but I’m not sure it amounts to cultural appropriation—perhaps aesthetic tourism, finely observed and reverently respectful. I just know that it’s one of my favourite movies of the year, and one that I will enjoy revisiting before long. [February 2019: I tried showing Isle of Dogs to a group of cinephile friends as part of a pre-Oscar warmup, and the reaction was … divided. I still loved it.]
(In French, On TV, December 2018) Reviewing Mystère au Louvre is a fluke — it’s practically unknown outside the French-speaking world (only 38 votes on IMDB as of this writing!) for good reasons: It’s a made-for-TV movie for France 2, and fourth in the “Mystère à Paris” series of movies. I’m dumbfounded as to how it found its way to a Québec-side TV channel. It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page in French. I’ve reviewed some obscure stuff here, but this has to be a strong contender for one of the least likely to be seen again. In some ways, you’re not missing out on much. The story, about a burglar targeting precious jewels exposed at Le Louvre and recruiting a high-wire artist for support, has bits and pieces taken from other better movies. The heist mechanics are strictly conventional, and the dialogue supporting the story isn’t particularly distinguished. The budget is obviously low (thanks Paris for providing historical settings for next to nothing!), the filming rushed and the cinematographic qualities a perceptible notch under the usual standard. Alice Taglioni isn’t bad as the burglar, but there’s little sense that she bring something unique to the role. In short, there isn’t anything startlingly new or interesting in Mystère au Louvre. But what it does have is the flipside of familiarity: comfort. There’s something almost seamless in slipping into this film, as unoriginal as it is. The sets are often gorgeous, the idea of a high-class burglar is perennial fun, Taglioni is attractive and even going through the motions of a heist is enough to keep things interesting. Plus there’s the advantage of knowing where it’s going, meaning that you are doing something else at the time there’s little possible confusion as to where the story is and where it’s going. I’m still not recommending Mystère au Louvre, but I’m saying that if ever, on a cold winter’s night, you suddenly find yourself confronted with it there’s no reason to run away.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) I can certainly understand Little Women’s timeless appeal—as a story detailing the struggles of the four March girls following the American Civil War, it’s got no fewer than five plum female roles, including four for young actresses. The 1930s version practically made a star out of Katharine Hepburn, and this 1994 version features a terrific cast, in-between Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis and Claire Danes as the girls, with Susan Sarandon as the mother. But wait, it gets even better! Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz and Christian Bale are also featured as some of the suitors of the March girls. Meanwhile, the story has just enough melodrama with war casualties, fatal illnesses, romantic entanglements and literary progression. Director Gillian Armstrong manages to adapt and propel the story in a way that avoids some of the hawkishness of earlier version, and create a convincing portrait of a family sticking through challenging times. I do like the 1930s version, but this Little Women may be even more accessible and lighter on cheap sentiment.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) Given that Gaston Lagaffe was one of the comic book series with which I grew up, my expectations ran high about its newest movie adaptation. (There was one back in the early 1980s, but we don’t talk about it.) The biggest challenge in bringing Lagaffe to the big screen is that there is no real proper guide to follow—Lagaffe had been conceived as filler material for Belgian comics magazine Spirou, meaning that most of the albums are made out of one-page gags, or (at most) a short story a few pages long satirizing the inner workings of the magazine. What remains are the characters: Gaston, a well-intentioned but blunder-prone slacker inventor who tries to improve his workplace but usually ends up causing more trouble along the way. Then there’s the pets, the boss, the friendly girl (not necessarily the girlfriend), the policeman, the car, the various colleagues, and so on. This film sadly updates Gaston to modern standards, meaning than rather than go back to a 1960s magazine atmosphere, Gaston works for an internet company. Ew. But the betrayal of the characters runs deeper: Gaston as portrayed here by Théo Fernandez as an almost unlikable slacker with destructive propensities so acute that his boss (supposed to be an antagonist) becomes semi-sympathetic in dealing with Gaston. Weird. At least Alison Wheeler and Charlotte Gabris are nice to look at, and Wheeler does make for a great Mademoiselle Jeanne despite the wobbly screenwriting. Most of writer/director Pierre-François Martin-Laval’s movie plays dumb-for-dumb, lowering the level of the film to cheap gags; whatever flashes of brilliance usually come from the comics rather than the screenwriting itself further highlighting the contrast between the two. In between the grating characterization, dumb jokes, relatively low success rate of the jokes and missed opportunities, much of the film is merely so-so when compared to the source material. Fortunately, it does improve somewhat in the last few minutes, with an ending sequence that almost redeems Gaston and the film along with it. A rather cute singalong epilogue caps things off decently, but even a good last impression doesn’t do much to compensate for the film’s missed opportunities. This isn’t the only French movie to try and fail to do much with comic book source material—the CGI is there to free filmmakers from trying the same kind of gags than the comics, but the screenwriting lags far behind. But it’s too late to save Gaston Lagaffe from the results.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) As someone who was there, agog, at the dawn of CGI movies, it still amazes me that the technology has advanced so much and become so commonplace that there are dozens of well-made CGI movies released every year that fly low under the radar of mainstream audiences. There’s specifically a strong subgenre of Japanese-made CGI movies, often in support of videogames (such Resident Evil) or established franchises (Starship Troopers) that push CGI to near-photorealistic levels and yet go almost unnoticed. Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is one of those: an astonishingly realistic animation movie that expands the lore of the Final Fantasy XV videogame into a linear narrative experience. The film’s biggest strength is undoubtedly its visual aspect, beautiful and extremely detailed in creating an environment where a futuristic megapolis can co-exist with Audi car chases, sword fights and magic. You can watch the movie and be reminded of how convincingly we can portray entirely imaged worlds. (We can see a clear line between 2001’s epochal Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Kingsglaive.) The art direction is top-notch, and there are times where (predictably enough) you just want to pause the story and go free-roaming into the city to fully take it in—and that’s where the video-game tie-in becomes crucial. Alas, few will be surprised to learn that the story supported by this visual representation of a new world is significantly less impressive. The problems probably start at the premise: Tied too closely to a videogame mythology, it’s probably not surprising that the story does not really stand on its own—you probably need to have played the game or the series to get allusions and subtleties, and the story itself can’t be better than the one used in the game. But this wobbly foundation is further harmed by a messy script that operates at the limits of intelligibility: the story unfolds for near-incomprehensible reasons, and it often happens that something cool happens, only for our understanding of what exactly just happened lags several minutes (if ever) after seeing what happened. There’s probably a cultural issue here, the film being from Japan, but that doesn’t excuse the sloppy and haphazard scripting. I’d like the direction to calm down a bit and take the time to show us what we need to know—the action often degenerates into visual chaos, and that’s another instance when having too much CGI power can be detrimental. I’m still happy to have seen Kingsglaive if only to see how far CGI can be pushed in the service of an animated photorealistic movie, but the story is frankly a mess, and those plot elements that actually work only reinforce how badly the film does not meet its own ambitions in telling a story.
(On TV, December 2018) I’m as surprised as you are to find out that, somehow, I missed out on a big-budget CGI movie for almost a decade. Of course, A Christmas Carol has two disadvantages—it falls squarely in the Christmas Movie Ghetto of films that are only shown 25 days of the year then fall out of mind for eleven months, and it also shares a title and plot with roughly ten other movies all adapting Dicken’s classic. This being said, there isn’t another A Christmas Carol like this one, and there probably will never be—this is the CGI version of the story, using circa-2009 CGI which was fine for inanimate objects and ghosts but not so much human characters. The camera makes showy moves through Dickensian London, but the attempt to recreate human actors falls squarely into the uncanny valley. There’s a difference between attempting stylized human characters (something that most animated movies do) and actually trying to recreate human actors and A Christmas Carol sadly goes for the latter. Script-wise, this take on the story is significantly darker than you’d expect from previous versions, with several sequences designed to scare audiences. The inclusion of action sequences (most notably a chase sequence featuring flying sleds throughout the city) also seems gratuitous and made to push the 3D craze of the time. Director Robert Zemeckis capped his trilogy of ill-conceived 3D-CGI features with this one (after The Polar Express and Beowulf) and it’s a good thing he then went on to do other kinds of movies. Nearly a decade later, there haven’t been any attempts to go beyond this highly detailed CGI-fest, but we can already suspect that it’s not going to age nearly as well as versions made decades before. (For the record, my best current take on Dickens’s story is the 1999 BBC version starring Patrick Stewart.)
(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’m game to give a chance to nearly all made-in-Canada Science Fiction movies, but my patience has its limits and those were exceeded by The Humanity Bureau, as dull a dystopian film as I can recall recently. Nicolas Cage (clearly still looking to pay his tax bill) stars as a Midwestern government official who assesses people for exile to a colony where (hang on to your hats, here, this is going to get wild) nobody has ever come back. Given that you have already guessed the film’s big twist, there isn’t much more to say … except that this government agent takes pity on a woman and her child and then flee north to Canada where, in the grand tradition of American dystopias, a state of peace, order and good government awaits. (Maple syrup rules force me to point out that this isn’t as much a well-worn trope as a statement of national pride.) This dull plot is executed in bland fashion with brown-black cinematography, predictable plot twists, a darker-than-expected conclusion and bog-standard dystopian clichés. Cage is very ordinary here, looking detached and unaffected by the entire production—there’s nothing of his exuberant acting style left. Exasperating to get through, The Humanity Bureau has little to say and goes at it badly. Considering that there’s a mini-flood of Canadian SF productions out there, it’s not special in any way and would be fated to quick oblivion if it wasn’t for it qualifying as CanCon fit to be played endlessly on Canadian TV channels.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2018) This being December and all, I thought it was an appropriate time for revisiting the first classic adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I distinctly recall seeing it as a kid—or at least the sequence in which the Grinch’s machine folds upon itself, which stuck in mind as one of the coolest things ever. With Chuck Jones as the director and Boris Karloff as the narrator, there’s even some serious star-power included. Alas, time has not been kind to a middle-aged second look at the film. It’s very familiar by now, and I do wonder how much of the film’s reputation runs almost entirely on nostalgia. Short and not quite as impressive (on a technical level) as I had remembered it, How the Grinch Stole Christmas does still have a very nice (if overused) message. Still, I can’t help but being disappointed. But considering that the entire thing is barely 26 minutes long, I should probably just stop here.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) One of the best things about cheaper digital filmmaking equipment and the resulting explosion in smaller-scale independent productions is that it allows a greater number of people to express their point of view. It’s not quite outsider art, but it can often feel like it especially once those movies espouse niche passions and aesthetics. If you’re a New Zealander Heavy Metal fan, for instance, Deathgasm is there for you as it describes the experience of Heavy Metal high-school outcasts in confronting a demonic invasion of their hometown. Riffing off metal aesthetics and gory horror movie tropes, Deathgasm is made by and for a specific audience. In the film’s value system, rocking out is tops, fantasies have you on top of a mountain brandishing a sword while surrounding by cavorting nude girls (a fantasy that’s apparently common to both the male and female lead), and the devil exists … but he can be vanquished by the power of metal. While this is not exactly a unique concept (if I had a movie theatre, I’d try booking a triple bill with Trick or Treat and Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny), it’s far enough from the norm to be enjoyable in its own way. The granguignolesque amount of gore is made palatable by the film’s overall comedic tone and dynamic energy. Hailing from New Zealand, Deathgasm is sure to reach a worldwide audience. I do admire the conviction with which writer/director Jason Lei Howden achieves his own objectives. I’m not a metal-head nor a gore-hound, but I did have a surprisingly good time watching Deathgasm.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) I’ve been a big fan of Aardman Studio’s stop-motion animated films, but Early Man is perhaps the first of them to leave me unsatisfied. Despite the outstanding technical polish of the animation, the film takes a very long time to come in focus. As we’re thrust into a comic portrayal of a prehistoric civilization, the gags feel lacking, and the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere for a while. When it does, it’s a disappointment because Early Man reveals itself to be … a football/soccer comedy. (The title can mean “Early Manchester,” as in the British football team.) From that point on, it becomes obvious that the film is made by and for football fans: it becomes an underdog sports comedy and despite the setting the plot and comedy become very familiar, which is not Aardman’s trademark. (Or is it? Because as I write this, it occurs to me that Aardman’s signature successes have been to put the familiar in an unfamiliar setting—WW2 POW Camp escape for poultry in Chicken Run, and Horror Movie tropes in kid’s animal clothing for The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.) While the result is surely sympathetic, it does stay far more ordinary than I would have liked. No one’s perfect, I guess—but I’m still looking forward to the next Aardman film.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) The Boomers were clearly getting old in 2002, and The Banger Sisters can certainly be seen as an attempt to impose their own anxieties on the big screen. Here we have fifty-something Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn playing forty-something characters who reconnect after a few years apart—while both were rock groupies in their youth, one of them has settled and the other one hasn’t, and much of the film’s comedy/drama comes from the contrast between the two. There’s not a whole lot there that we haven’t seen in other movies, but if the film works it’s because of the well-worn charms of the stars. Sarandon is very much in-persona as the once-wild now-straight mom who (predictably) learns to loosen up, while Hawn plays the still-wild one who does the loosening up. (It would be Hawn’s last role before a 14-year eclipse from acting.) Geoffrey Rush is remarkable playing a writer with issues of his own. It’s not much of a movie, and those who have a grudge against Hollywood Boomers’ refusal to age gracefully will find much material for their angst. But in a sense The Banger Sisters isn’t supposed to be much more than an actor’s lighthearted showcase. It works better as such.