(On TV, February 2017) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Lasse Hallström and Nicholas Sparks in Dear John. With those four names together, you almost don’t have to do anything else to describe the result. Of course, it’s going to be an overlong (Hallström) weepy romantic drama (Nicholas Sparks) featuring a sympathetic hunk (Tatum) and a likable petite blonde (Seyfried). Any other questions? Oh, sure, the point of those films is in the details and side characters such as Richard Jenkins’ autistic father, likable in a difficult role. It’s about the homespun wisdom that kind of works even as it’s melodramatic (“Now I have two small holes in me. I’m no longer in perfect condition.”) It’s about familiar dialogue and situations that allow viewers to immerse themselves in characters that could be just like them. It’s about knowing where the journey takes us and being comforted by it. It’s not about wit or originality or being challenged or reflecting on the anxious years following 9/11. It’s not about anything else but what you see on the tin. Dear John works at what it tries to be, but it doesn’t try to be very ambitious.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I’m not sure why I’ve been slowly warming up to Amanda Seyfried lately, after years of comparing her to a Muppet. It may be that she’s paid her dues, got a few good roles, isn’t going anywhere, is aging gracefully in her unusual looks and even seems eager to poke fun at herself (such as in the otherwise woeful Ted 2) All of this makes her more sympathetic, even in movies from a while ago. So it is that, perhaps surprisingly, Seyfried becomes one of Letters to Juliet’s most noteworthy assets, a bright presence in an otherwise dull film. Despite the time-crossed lovers premise (i.e.: a young American writer helping an elderly British woman find a long-lost love in Italy) and the luminous cinematography, Letters to Juliet is immediately familiar in the rom-com mold—there’s little doubt where things are going even early on, and much of the movie becomes a demonstrative film rather than a suspenseful one. That’s largely why the last fifteen minutes are an exercise in frustration, as the film needlessly stretches out what should be over already. Still, the portrayal of the Italian countryside is good for a bit of vicarious sight-seeing, and the film’s pairs of romantic leads are good at what they’re supposed to do. It doesn’t amount to much more than a standard rom-com, but there are days when even an average rom-com is just what’s needed.
(On DVD, January 2017) I don’t think anyone was actively asking for a feature film reimagining of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, but Hollywood has seemingly taken aim at every other fairy tale out there, usually producing results far worse than Red Riding Hood. Helmed by Catherine Hardwicke (who also helmed Twilight—this will be relevant in a moment), this take on the classic fairy tale soon runs into a supernatural serial killer mystery set in a small village, with religious paranoia and shapeshifting lust as important plot drivers. There are a few good moments as the village is in near-panic mode. Elfin blonde Amanda Seyfried holds the lead and manages to acquit herself decently even when the material around her threatens self-parody. Gary Oldman shows up as a decent human antagonist, while Virginia Madsen has a too-small role as an imperfect mother. Visually, the film does have a few striking moments—showing the life of a small medieval village not as a drab misery, but a picturesque showcase. Red Riding Hood is borderline ridiculous at times (especially given the Twilight echoes as the werewolf romance becomes stronger—this is a pure Team Jacob film response) but it still manages to hold our attention. Having never been a teenage girl, I’m far from being the target audience for this film—so I’m inclined to be lenient toward Red Riding Hood and simply acknowledge that it achieves what it sets out to do.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) The first Ted managed to overcome an annoying tendency toward vulgarity, pop-culture hermeticity and scattershot comedy by offering a bit of thematic depth in portraying a metaphor for prolonged adolescence. The sequel, unfortunately, seems to have forgotten all about meaning while playing up the worst aspects of the first film. The laughs are far fewer in this film as it tries to combine low-brow humor with a lame bid at human rights (or rather teddy-bear rights) activism. Sexist, racist and hopelessly obsessed with bad language, Ted 2 often feels like a sketch comedy loosely structured around a half-hearted attempt at plotting. Mark Wahlberg is unremarkable in a returning engagement as the protagonist, although Amanda Seyfried manages one of her most likable performance as a young lawyer tasked to defend Ted’s legal status. (The film even indulges into two gags about her physical appearance.) Whatever comedy works (Liam Neeson’ cameo appearance, for instance) feel more accidental than deliberate, and the jokes that don’t work make the film feel cheaper and more repellent. It feels like a low-effort affair, happy to coast on low-grade dumb jokes rather than try to make a statement as in the first film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say much about writer/director Seth MacFarlaine: After the debacle that was A Million Ways to Die in the West and now Ted 2, I’m not exactly anticipating his next film.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) A quick trawl through these reviews will reveal that when it comes to movie musicals, I’m a very forgiving reviewer. I have embraced the musical in its post-Moulin Rouge era and a few disappointments aside, I’m usually fond of the genre. So imagine my surprise when I found myself annoyed, bored and exasperated by Les Misérables, surely one of the most instantly recognizable examples of the genre to come down the Broadway-to-Hollywood route. I groaned when I realized that Les Misérables would not only be wall-to-wall singing, but that nearly every song would sound the same and drag on forever. More than once, I left the living room for errands and came back minutes later to characters expressing the same emotion. For all of its nice cinematography and convicting re-creation of a troubled period in French history, Les Misérables plods on for more than an excruciating two hours and a half, on a musical register than barely varies from one song to the next. Perhaps my powers of concentration are gone; maybe I’m just picky when I should be forgiving. And it’s not as if the actors are slacking, given how many of them do well with parts that exceed their signing range. Seeing Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and a thoroughly unglamorous Helena Bonham Carter voice their miserable condition is interesting as in we-haven’t-seen-this-too-many-times-before, but they can’t make the pace move more quickly, or change the film’s intention to make nearly every line of dialogue sung. (Still, I note that the most memorable performance comes from musical-cast-member Samantha Barks, who makes the most out of a limited role as Éponine) Les Misérables is lavish filmmaking on the highest level –but it’s annoying for idiosyncratic reasons that I can’t fully articulate. Upon reflection, through, it occurs to me that I’m fonder of original-movie-musicals rather than straight-up adaptations of existing Broadway shows. Let’s keep the musicals on Broadway, and use the cinema screen for something that fully exploits cinema as a medium.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) The story of Linda Lovelace, first-ever porn star thanks to a starring role in the wildly popular Deep Throat, is a classic case of she-said-she-then-said: Lovelace (co-)wrote four autobiographies, and their content varied with time: The first two are very much pro-pornography at a time where she was riding Deep Throat’s popularity, the last two very much against it at a time when she was campaigning against obscenity and free to speak against her abusive then-husband. Lovelace unusually tries to grapple with this complex portrait by presenting Lovelace’s life twice: first as a success story, and then as the darker, more abusive version of it. It may not completely work (the scenes become sketches rather than flow harmoniously from one another, and the simplification of Linda-the-victim is unfortunate given the complexity of her life after porn and after being used by feminist activism), but it’s an interesting attempt that brings an unusual twist to the usual bio-drama genre. What is undeniable, though, is Amanda Seyfried’s performance in what may be the first truly adult role she’s played so far –far away from the post-teenage ingénues that fill her filmography. As for the rest of the film, well, it convincingly re-creates the seventies, features a darkly amusing cameo by James Franco as Hugh Hefner and has a nearly-unrecognizable Sharon Stone in a maternal role (!) alongside a gruff Robert Patrick. Lovelace may not be the complete story of Linda Boreman, but it goes further than could have been expected in presenting both sides of it.
(On-demand, September 2012) After a number of smaller roles in movies since 2008’s Mamma Mia!, Amanda Seyfried is finally getting to headline a film in Gone: She’s not only the lead protagonist: there’s no one else of comparable stature in the cast and she’s on-screen nearly from beginning to end. Her role, as a damaged abduction survivor trying to track down her sisters’ kidnapper, is not a bad part for someone trying to build her credentials as a leading actress and Seyfried gives it all she’s got. Unfortunately, the script isn’t good enough to make the movie better than her performance: In-between the gratuitously misogynistic dialogue, the dropped subplots or the concluding revelation that almost invalidates the plot of the film so far, Gone has basic issues that prevent it from being anything other than a middle-of-the-road, faintly dull suspense film. Some of the harsher dialogue and investigative set-pieces work in the moment, but they don’t amount to anything worth remembering a few hours after the credits roll. (It doesn’t help that the conclusion feels anticlimactic.) Portland (Oregon) is nicely featured, but otherwise it’s difficult to find anything distinctive to say about the film. Gone is merely another title in a long list of undistinguished wintertime thrillers that seemingly only serve to feed the vast maw of Hollywood’s distribution machine. It’s not awful, but neither is it any good.
(In theatres, September 2009) Juno, Mamma Mia! and the Transformers have little in common except for how they set up expectations (and reactions) to this hum-drum horror/comedy movie in which a high-school sexpot is transformed in a man-eating succubus. Would screenwriter Diablo Cody resurrect a tired genre with her lively dialogue? Would Amanda Seyfried look less like a froggy muppet? Would Megan Fox know what to do without giant robots around? But while Jennifer’s Body is more interesting than most of the other teen horror movies out there, it’s practically the definition of a sophomore slump: Unsatisfying, disjointed and “off” in ways that are hard to pin down precisely. (Although if you want an idea of why the dialogue doesn’t always work, wait for the “Wikipedia” line.) While the script shows moments of cleverness, genre-twisting and killer quips in answering the age-old question “what if the virgin sacrifice wasn’t a virgin?”, the plot as a whole seems to advance in unnatural fashion as determined by the screenwriter: Motivations are suspect, clichés abound, scenes don’t make much sense and even the self-conscious dialogue heightens the artificiality of the story. Worst of all, Jennifer’s Body seems curiously unambitious in what it’s trying to do: the comedy falls flat, the horror is banal, the metaphors are weak and more than a few scenes seem to go through the expected beats. At least some of the actors do well: well-cast Fox gets a bit more to do here than in Transformers, while Seyfried shows signs of being able to outgrow her current round-faced cuteness. Overall, though, Jennifer’s Body is a letdown considering the anticipation surrounding its release, and a generally lacklustre film even taken solely on its own. While its surface qualities are interesting (it’s a rare high-profile horror film written and directed by women, acknowledging teenage sexuality, and featuring two actresses with only secondary roles for the actors), it’s far less subversive than you may expect or hope for.
(On DVD, sometime mid-2009) I’m not that familiar with the original stage jukebox musical, but even I know that it’s a frothy romantic comedy built around a number of ABBA songs. As such, the film adaptation Mamma Mia! does service to the concept: It’s lighthearted, romantic, and features a series of numbers based on ABBA songs. As three older men converge on a Greek island where an ex-flame and her daughter live, it’s the film’s smallest mystery to find out who is the girl’s father. Much of the time is spend singing and dancing, helped along by the inescapable (and somewhat delightful) fact that ABBA’s music has inserted itself deeply into modern pop culture. The result may be kitsch, but it’s familiar and comfortable kitsch without a mean bone and with an inordinate desire to please. It is, in other words, almost impossible to dislike. The actors involved aren’t all good singers, but it’s part of the film’s charm to see Pierce Brosnan croon, even hoarsely, to Meryl Streep. Amanda Seyfried is cute as a Muppet as the daughter with a mystery father, and the fantastic Greek scenery adds a lot to the film’s sunny atmosphere. Mamma Mia! isn’t high art, but sometimes campy pop is more than good enough.