(On Cable TV, April 2017) Ensemble romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, but few of them tackle the topic of retiree romance as well as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. While I don’t entirely buy the premise (pensioners moving from Britain to India for their last few years), it does make for a clever way to put familiar characters in new situations. As they navigate the unfamiliarity of modern India, our cast of character grows from their new surroundings, we viewers get a good dose of exoticism and various subplots are left free to develop. A good ensemble casts helps—While Judy Dench and Tom Wilkinson are the standouts here, Bill Nighy manages to make a weak-willed character sympathetic and Maggie Smith gets the difficult role of a stone-cold racist changing her ways after immersion in a foreign culture. Dev Patel also gets a good role as the young Indian man trying to hold a plan together despite the actions of his western guests. Colorful, sympathetic and gently upholding admirable values, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is the kind of pleasant surprise that British cinema does so well. It’s not spectacular, but it works well enough.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) On one hand, this is a terrible science-fiction film. On the other hand, this is an excellent science-fiction film. Those aren’t necessarily contradictions, if you accept that SF is at its best when it aims to illuminate facets of humanity and if you accept that genre SF has evolved to be as self-consistent as possible. Written and directed by Richard Curtis, a talented artist with no background in genre SF, About Time firmly belongs to the naïve school of SF that believes that the worst logical flaws are irrelevant as long as viewers are moved by the emotional consequences of the science-fictional device. And on that point, About Time is quite successful: While its time-traveling device isn’t much more that fuzzy wish-fulfilment (go in a closet, close your fists and wish really hard) with no consistent set of rules save for those that can be ignored by dramatic impact, the film does manage to poke at some of life’s biggest emotional dilemmas in a way that feels relatively fresh. It helps, of course, that it’s part of the gentle British rom-com tradition: Domhnall Gleeson makes for an affable romantic hero, whereas Bill Nighy steals every scene as an amiable man who has figured out much of his life. The film is a bit of a slow burn, starting in firmly comic territory before going into heavier themes. Sure, it’s frustrating that the rules of the premise don’t seem to hold together, or that lies seem built-in most of the protagonist’s relationships. But the film itself is pure charm, and such likability goes a long way in leaving viewers with a big smile and a bit of a heartache.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) An intense impression of familiarity is what first emerges from expensive-but-generic action fantasy film I, Frankenstein. Seemingly built using the same pieces as the Underworld series, Van Helsing and so many other attempts at shoe-horning familiar characters into a generic template, this film has the generic east-European blandness of so many other forgettable urban-fantasy films. The Manichean mythology is dull, the poor lonely hero is dull, the visuals are dull and there are few surprises along the way to the Big Fight at The End. Still, I, Frankenstein isn’t a complete dud for a few reasons: The first is Aaron Eckhart, using his square jaw to good effect as the stoic patchwork hero. The second is writer/director Stuart Beattie, quite a bit better as a director of action sequences than as the screenwriter: While the script is bland, some of the fight sequences are handled with a decent amount of fluidity and lengthy takes. Bill Nighy does a little bit of scenery-nibbling as the villain, but not enough to become a memorable antagonist. While the film has thematic ambitions, most of those lose themselves in meaningless nonsense, especially whenever the film tries to claim that its hero is soulless. (What does that even mean?) The humorlessness of I, Frankenstein doesn’t contribute to any enjoyable campiness, leaving very little as a feature when the film can’t emerge from its downbeat muck. Too bad for Eckhart (who hasn’t really broken through as a big star despite a few great performances), but too bad for viewers as well, served reheated fantasy leftovers as if they were somehow important.
(On Cable TV, January 2013) The sad news is that Wrath of the Titans doesn’t have the arch melodramatic tone that made its predecessor so much fun to watch: “Release the Kraken!”, anyone? The good news is that this sequel to Clash of the Titans remains a relatively entertaining action/fantasy film: the bare-bones plot serves handily as an excuse for well-choreographed action sequences involving grander-than-life fantastical creatures. Director Jonathan Liebesman shows a good eye for flowing action sequences, and the film has a few gorgeous continuous shots in which the action plays out beautifully. Tons of fiery special effects add more interest, especially when dealing with the skyscraper-sized end boss. Sam Worthington holds the film together as no-nonsense reluctant hero Perseus, but Bill Nighy has a bit of fun as a half-mad god while Liam Neeson also makes an impression as a bound Zeus. Thematically, there’s a flicker of interest when we realize that the story is taking place at the twilight of the gods’ influence over human affairs: there’s a last-hurrah atmosphere to the plot that interesting in its own right. Still, let’s not kid ourselves: this is pure spectacle, the fantasy elements being excuses for bigger action set-pieces. Wrath of the Titans works well in this context, and delivers the high-gloss entertainment factor that viewers of the first film expected. That first entry wasn’t all that good, but this follow-up best succeeds at what it tries to do, and that’s already quite a bit better than many recent action/fantasy hybrids.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I could go on and on about this being the epitome of the quirky/funny low-budget British crime comedy if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s a remake of French film Cible Émouvante. Still, Wild Target is short, dark, witty, quite funny and British to the core. Bill Nighy is up to his usual charming standards as a dapper, uptight hit-man contemplating getting away from it all, and he finds a great foil in the beautiful Emily Blunt as a flighty con artist needing protection who comes to change his regimented life. For a film that got nearly no press in North America, this is a very enjoyable surprise: the script is smarter than average, the actors look as if they’re having fun and the film perfectly doses a small amount of violence in this dark but not overly downbeat comedy. The dry humor doesn’t pander too much, and the film manages to remain interesting even when it abandons London (after a hilariously clever “car chase” through the City) for a small country estate. Wild Target‘s production qualities are fine for its low budget, Jonathan Lynn’s direction is generally unobtrusive and the result is worth a look. This is the kind of film that plays a lot better on the small screen as an “eh, might as well watch this one” choice than a big-screen event.