(On Cable TV, December 2018) It’s not easy to make a successful ensemble musical biography, but Cadillac Records does manage to put together a fun and intriguing look at the life of Lionel Chess and the heydays of Chess Records, a pivotal Chicago-based record company that played a crucial role in rhythm-and-blues, as well as the formation of early rock-and-roll. The ensemble cast clearly has fun playing musical legends, what with Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Beyoncé as Etta James, Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf and Mos Def as Chuck Berry, with Adrian Brody as producer Leonard Chess. Writer-director Darnell Martin’s script doesn’t stray far from either the truth or the music movies clichés, but it does have a good narrative rhythm to it. It’s perhaps most remarkable for focusing on a label rather than just a single artist, giving us a glimpse of the relationships between a group of people moving forward in time. The characters are memorable, their stories remain interesting and the music is about as good as it could be. Don’t be surprised to want to revisit Cadillac Records only for the music, leaving it as background ambiance while doing other things.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) I actually wanted to like this movie, and I wanted to like it the way it was meant to be: a straight-up B-grade crime thriller, the kind of thing that follows likable anti-heroes as they rob a bank and try to salvage their audience sympathy along the way. Unfortunately, American Heist is about as generic as its title suggests, with little to make the film in any way compelling. There’s a bit of interest or two to see Adrian Brody show up, ripped, to play a tattooed career criminal. It’s also interesting to see formerly-big actors such as Hayden Christensen and Jordanna Brewster pop up in relatively important roles. Alas, that’ it as far as distinctions are concerned: the rest of American Heist plays like Generic Heist Film with few deviations from the template. Worse yet: the film can’t pull off any kind of moment-to-moment interest beyond advancing the story further. The dialogues, characters and events are all instantly forgettable and the picture soon blurs into forgettable mediocrity the moment the end credits roll. There’s little to recommend it –especially since the heist sub-genre has produced some stellar examples of the form lately. The Town this isn’t –and there must be another half-dozen heist films that are more instantly memorable than this one.
(In theaters, July 2010) Given the indefensible mess that were the two Alien vs Predator movies, it doesn’t take much to reboot the Predator franchise with a mean and lean action follow-up to the first film. Anyone complaining about Predators’ thin story, unimaginative extension to the franchise or routine structure may want to step back from keyboard for a moment and acknowledge that this late follow-up isn’t too bad: It certainly doesn’t waste any time dropping us in the thick of the action, with its rapid assembly of human warriors being hunted by aliens on an equally-alien planet. SF fans will be disappointed by the lack of substance of the film’s SF elements (It takes a surprisingly long time for the characters to look up and notice that they’re not on Earth anymore, even after passing through a rocky plain), so it’s better to focus on Predators as an action film with a few fancy trappings. But even there, the film struggles to distinguish itself: a few sequences are badly staged and rely on unbelievable spatial coincidences. (For a film that takes place on an entire alien planet, everything seems to happen within two or three city blocks.) It’s marginally more successful at establishing each characters and giving them even a modicum of respectability: We know they’re going to be picked-off one by one, but at least we can enjoy their presence while they last. Adrian Brody credibly growls his way to a buff action hero, but supporting players such as Danny Trejo and Louis Ozawa Changchien (in a nearly-silent role) also get a few good moments. Nimród Antal’s direction is slightly more ambitious than the usual stock action film, and that’s how the film allows itself a few better moments such as a swordfight seen from overhead. Predators does last a bit too long, muddles into a mid-film lull and can’t really escape the shadow of the first Predator film, but at least it’s clearly in line with the first film, and that’s something that none of the sequels have been able to claim so far. Not a bad result for something that falls into a generic action film slot.
(In theatres, June 2010) This may be a horror movie featuring a monster, but it’s not just a monster movie. Taking the well-worn science-fiction and horror clichés of scientists creating artificial life and then seeing it do horrible things, Splice is noteworthy for the thematic weight it manages to carry around, and how rarely it succumbs to cliché, starting by a delicate inversion of movies premises where scientists engage in mad science to substitute for parenthood. While Adrian Brody is fine as the male half of the protagonist couple, it’s Sarah Polley who gets most of the attention as his girlfriend/lab partner: Few actresses can play smart in a convincing fashion, but Polley can just act as her own bright self. Neither of the protagonists comes out particularly heroic during the events of the film, but it’s interesting to see how each one alternates in the “who’s acting most despicably” derby. That, added to how Splice delves decisively into unpleasant plot developments, make it both a good horror film and one that many won’t want to watch a second time. The grimy depressing Toronto snowy outdoors won’t help either. It all amounts to a film that sounds like just about every single other straight-to-DVD monster movie ever released, but really isn’t: Splice isn’t quite as cheaply anti-science as you’d think (there’s a montage that actually makes bioengineering look hip and fun), it goes places that lesser scripts wouldn’t dare touch, it incorporates some really good special effects, and does quite a bit with a small cast. While it can’t escape a few predictable sequences (including an ending that is telegraphed well in advance), the result amounts to an unpleasantly good little surprise, and another small success for Toronto-based writer/director Vincenzo Natali after a fairly lengthy absence from the big screen. Hopefully, this will pave the way for more films from him.