(On Cable TV, December 2018) Ho boy, do I have mixed feelings about this Death Wish remake. For one thing, I’ve been watching a lot of urban-decay movies of the early 1970s lately, including the original Charles Bronson film. For another, well, I’m Canadian—my nearest metropolitan area is in the midst of an unprecedented murder wave and yet our yearly total barely exceeds what the city of Chicago alone experiences over two weeks (although Chicago’s own wave of violence seems to be receding after a particularly bad 2016). Seeing Death Wish isn’t just like seeing a very American nightmare given form, but one that seems to be coming back from the past. You already know the story, or at least can grasp it in a few words: A peaceful man turns vigilante after a brutal attack leaves his wife dead and his daughter in a coma. The rest is pure predictable plot mechanics to complete the cycle of revenge, making sure our hero develops the skills, evades the cops, tracks down the responsible parties and executes them in a way that leaves him in the clear. The first step in such a by-the-number reactionary thriller is to clearly establish that its world is a far more dangerous place than ours—and the film does have to lie quite a bit in order to get there, reaching for racial stereotypes and vilifying its targets. Poachers attack a farm just to make a convenient point, statistics are grossly inflated, and a Greek chorus of radio and social media voices is there to half-heartedly make and dismiss objections. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis broods his way through a role very much in-line with much of his indifferent 21st-century screen persona. Director Eli Roth may want to make a social statement (although I doubt it—his horror-movie instincts come up whenever there’s even a faint chance to put gratuitous gore on-screen) but Death Wish is, far more than its predecessor, an NRA-approved exploitation picture designed to make fearful people feel comfortable in their twisted version of the world. It would be a pretty reprehensible picture if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s actually executed decently. Roth has the budget to go for clean impressive cinematography, feature good actors even in thankless roles (Dean Norris once more takes on a familiar persona, but he’s sufficiently good at it that emerges intact from the deplorable results), and flex his directorial skills honed on much nastier pictures. He doesn’t stray that far from his roots—plot-wise the film hinges on convenient coincidences and at least one ridiculous Rube-Goldberg contrivance. But Death Wish, for all of its considerable problems, does actually work at what it intends to be: a gun-powered revenge fantasy, slickly made and updated to the current era.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I first saw Die Hard with a Vengeance on opening day, and I’m pretty sure I saw it again on DVD ten or fifteen years ago. But I can’t find a mention of it on this site, so here we go: I really, really like the first two-third of this film. It open on the iconic “Summer in the City” soundtrack of a bustling mid-nineties Manhattan before starting to blow stuff up. Then it’s a wild ride through the city, accumulating brain-teasers, going through cheeky overdone action sequences and letting Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson do what they do best. John McTiernan’s direction is exceptionally good and there’s a sense of fun, joy and movement to the story. Every cinephile imprints on the movies of younger years, and mid-to-late nineties action cinema is the standard against which I will forever measure others. Die Hard With a Vengeance’s first two acts is good, solid, highly enjoyable moviemaking. I like it a lot, and I had forgotten just enough details about the movie to be charmed all over again. It’s also a beautiful wide-screen homage to New York City in its multiplicities of glories. Then … the film leaves Manhattan and loses quite a bit of steam. While the script is always big on coincidences, they get actively outrageous by the time our two main characters meet again upstate. By the time we’re on a boat, the film settles down to a far more conventional beat, and the tacked-on ending at the border feels more superfluous than anything else. Still, two-third of a great movie followed by a third of an okay one is better than the average. Contemporary viewers will notice that both Trump and Clinton are name-checked (the latter as a likely “forty third president”), and that a few moments eerily echo the events of 9/11.
(Third viewing, On DVD, April 2017) I’m sure that I last saw Die Hard 2 roughly ten years ago, but since I can’t find trace of it in my online reviews, let’s have another go at it: A decent follow-up to the first movie, Die Hard 2 leaves the skyscraper for a snow-covered airport and reliably goes for big action sequences no matter their crazy justification. Bruce Willis stars as John MacClaine, a bit more super-powered than in the original but still recognizable as a reluctant everyman hero stuck in a bad situation. It still works pretty well, despite some rough special effects and occasional lulls: Director Renny Harlin was climbing at the top of his game back then, and the tension of the film is effectively handled. What I didn’t remember from previous viewing is how heavily saturated by eighties politics the script remains—the references to Irangate are barely camouflaged, and the film does carry a perceptible whiff of Reagan-era political concerns. But of course, the point are the action sequences, and Die Hard 2 does measure up decently as an action film. While not the enduring classic of its prequel, Die Hard 2 remains a good action movie … and it still lives up to expectations today.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) The trouble with re-watching classics is the tension of judging whether it’s still a classic. I first saw Pulp Fiction, like every twentysomething at the time, in the mid-nineties on VHS—a good friend had brought it home and took delight in seeing me react to specific moments in the movie, whether it was the infamous watch speech or the “Garçon!” time-fixing moment. I filed away Pulp Fiction as a great movie and didn’t think about it. Now that I’m consciously re-watching big hits of the nineties, though, the question was: Did Pulp Fiction hold up, once past more than twenty years of imitators, Tarantino’s evolution and popularization of what (non-linear storytelling, witty dialogues, etc.) made it so special back then? What I clearly had forgotten about the movie was how long it was—at more than two hours and a half, the film is a daunting prospect, and the non-linear structure means that there’s almost an entire unexpected act added to a normal running time. Pulp Fiction, admittedly, doesn’t have the impact of surprise: Tarantino’s shtick is a known quantity by now, and seeing his characters go off on lengthy tangents isn’t surprising, nor seeing full sequences play in nearly real-time. The fractured chronology is still effective—I guarantee that even twenty years later, you will remember a lot of the film’s individual highlights … but not necessarily in which order they’re placed. I had near-verbatim recall of much of the John Travolta storyline, quite a bit of Bruce Willis’s segment (how could I forget the taxi driver, though?) but not much of Samuel L Jackson’s act. Fortunately, the dialogue still works, the dark comedy still feels solid, the cinematic flourishes (from “square” to the dance sequence to Harvey Keitel) still work very well and the movie still impresses by the mastery of its execution. It’s daring, sure, but it’s more importantly put together nearly flawlessly. Pulp Fiction has been endlessly imitated over the years, but it remains a solid best-of-class representation of its own subgenre. It’s well worth a revisit, especially if it’s been a while and yet you’re sure you remember most of it.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) It’s been increasingly difficult not to notice that Bruce Willis shows up in a lot of straight-to-video movies lately. He usually shows up playing the chief bad guy, mumbles aimlessly for a few scenes, then is dispatched by the hero and goes back home to collect what I presume must be a substantial and much-needed paycheck. His performance in Precious Cargo is up to his newest standards. Fortunately, he’s only a small part of a film that focuses on a professional thief (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, wisecracking merrily) who gets recruited by an ex-lover (Claire Forlani, who seems to have belatedly gotten Angelina Jolie’s looks from non-natural means) to get herself out of some trouble. For a low-budget film (and the key to appreciating Precious Cargo is half in remembering the film’s limited means), Precious Cargo does a few things well: there are a few good action highlights (including a boat chase that looks as if it cost half the film’s budget), the characterization and wisecracking elevates the film from many other similar thrillers, and for all of its sins, it doesn’t try to be dour or downbeat. As the ending plays, everything is fine and thieves get their money. Roll the credits, don’t expect much more and the result is just good enough to warrant a viewing when you’re all out of other options. I’ve seen worse.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I remember seeing bits and pieces of Death Becomes Her before (especially the special effects work) but not the entire thing and having watched it, I can only conclude that Hollywood’s become far more risk-averse in the past twenty-five years because … wow, this is a weird film. It blends comedy with a fair bit of understated horror, hops viewpoints between protagonists, plays with supernatural tropes and seems delighted in deglamorizing its stars. Seeing Bruce Willis play a downtrodden surgeon is remarkable not only because he’s relatively animated in the role, but because it’s the kind of self-deprecating role he’d never play any more. Goldie Hawn (occasionally in a fat suit) and Meryl Streep (gamely going to lowbrow physical comedy) also play against persona, carefully directed by Robert Zemeckis with the kind of silliness that seems absent from the last two decades of his work. What’s definitely within his filmography is the film’s use of special effects for storytelling purpose: While dated, the work still carries a certain charge even today, and it’s not a surprise to find out that it won the Special Effects Oscar back in 1993. Beyond effects, Death Becomes Her does have a bit of beauty/age thematic depth to it, although I probably would feel better about a clash between aging actresses had the script been better at portraying the female gaze: At times, the “ha-ha, they’re so vain!” gags can feel mean-spirited and missing the point of the theme. But it’s definitely a weird film, also so much so that it’s to be discovered and savoured. It takes chances, occasionally missteps and often dares to indulge in risk-taking humour. The result may not be entirely successful, but it’s gleefully audacious and remains its own creation, without giving the impression of being photocopied from the Hollywood mainstream. Worth a look, if only as a reminder of the kind of stuff that Hollywood won’t dare touch these days at it chases predictable results.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Bad ideas never die, and that’s how Westworld’s basic concepts can be filed off and reborn decades later in a tepid low-budget thriller like Vice. Nominally about a theme park where clients can indulge in their wildest fantasies at the expense of the androids animated for their enjoyment, Vice clearly doesn’t know what to do with its own premise and quickly veers off in a dull stunted ennui. Bruce Willis briefly appears as the evil CEO, but (as in many of his low-budget efforts lately) seems bored by all aspects of the production. Thomas Jane and Ambyr Childers don’t really pick up the slack as, respectively, a dogged police officer and a robot who experiences flashes of her previous lives after being violently deactivated. For Science Fiction fans, Vice fails because it’s almost unbearably timid in the way it approaches its subject. Limited by budget and imagination, it barely scratches the surface of its possibilities—and the idea to transform its robots into likable victims quickly bogs down in clichés piled upon mawkishness. For action junkies, Vice doesn’t do much better: despite occasionally clever directing by Brian A. Miller, it seems uninteresting and then unendurable: it leaves no lasting impression and become undistinguishable from so many other cheap SF movies released straight-to-VOD. Let’s hope that Miller’s next film will be more ambitious and striking than Vice.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’ve been watching and enjoying so many late-nineties thrillers lately that I had begun to worry that I was losing my critical impartiality regarding the sub-genre. Fortunately, here is Mercury Rising to remind me of what a bad movie of the form could be. From a rather pedestrian premise (autistic kid solves problem that means that he’s cracked a top-secret encryption scheme; rogue elements of the government try to kill him; disgraced policeman steps in to protect him), Mercury Rising is primarily a failure of execution. Bruce Willis shows little energy in his role (echoing a lack of interest in most of the movies he’s taken on since 2010), while Alec Baldwin cackles as the villain. The plot is borderline nonsensical, the action scenes are rote and whatever emotional resonance the film tries to wring out of its elements rings false. The ending sequence is particularly bad, unconvincingly built from disparate soundstage elements. Mercury Rising is formula-built, which wouldn’t so bad if it was competently executed. But it isn’t, and despite Baldwin’s enjoyable turn as the antagonist, there isn’t much here to stay entertained.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The Die Hard series has had its high and lows, but if everyone agrees that the first one was the best, then everyone will recognize that this fifth one is the worst. A joyless action film in which a bland action hero traipses through Russia while insulting the Russians and reminding everyone that he’s supposed to be on holidays, Die Hard 5 becomes the generic end-point of any distinctive series: a film that could have featured any other actors with any other character names. To be fair, Die Hard 5‘s problems are much bigger than simply ignoring the character of John McClane: Much of the blame should go to a dumb script, with the rest generously gift-wrapped by director John Moore’ incoherent action sequences. There are few words to describe how stupid a screenplay this is, marred with coincidences, generic situations, implausible choices and tortured plans far too complicated to be viable. Die Hard 5 seems to be stuck with only one helicopter as an action device, and seems to milk its presence well past the point of diminishing return. The action sequences can’t be bothered to spatially orient viewers, instead relying on copious shaking, dishwater-gray cinematography and blatant disregard for plausibility. The car chase around Moscow, which should have been a standout sequence in any other movie, is here shot in such an incomprehensible fashion that it becomes irritating less than midway through. While Die Hard 5 would have us believe into some good-old father/son rivalry, the result on-screen is more annoying than rewarding, and the CIA plot thread is never believable enough. What a waste, what a sad footnote to a good film franchise and what a disappointment for everyone involved. Bruce Willis, surely you knew better?
(Video on Demand, December 2013) The original Red dared to combine aging action stars with quirky comedy and strong action sequences to deliver a film that wasn’t entirely successful, but remained distinctive enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. This sequel is slightly improved by a better understanding of how to combine humor with action, and it can dispense with the tedious work of introducing its main characters. Bruce Willis plays his familiar world-weary tough-guy role, quipping when he’s not exasperated at being thrown once again out of retirement. Among the returning cast, Helen Mirren is as much fun as ever as a top assassin, while John Malkovich is a bit less crazy (but more sympathetic) this time around, even as Mary Louise Parker furthers her transition from adrenaline junkie to rookie operative. There’s a fascinating “throwback to the cold war era” atmosphere as the action goes well beyond the borders of the United States and to Europe, with Anthony Hopkins bringing new laughs as a crazed weapons designer and Catherine Zeta Jones earning a few chuckles of her own as a once-fatale assassin. While the CGI works gets a bit tiresome by the end of the final chase sequence, most of the other action scenes are good enough. Red 2 doesn’t work on a particularly high level, but it’s adequate and in some ways moves past the whole “retired action heroes” shtick into a post-Cold War plot that seems to grow organically out of the characters’ age. It works just fine as an unassuming action film, and even a little better as a sequel.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) The risk in relying on familiar thriller tropes is that while they can provide structure, they can’t, in themselves, substitute for wit and originality. It’s not a bad idea to propose as a premise an American tourist in Spain getting caught in a complex web of espionage thrills and double-crosses, but it has to be handled with some competence. Alas, The Cold Light of Day is a purely generic product down to its meaningless title, and a roster of familiar actors can’t save the film from by-the-number plotting, familiar plot points, murky motivations and tedious pacing. Henry Cavill gets (and fumbles) a chance to prove himself a contemporary action hero as he finds himself alone and running in Madrid, but he’s easy to forget when sharing scenes with Bruce Willis (as a father with a hidden second and third life) and Sigourney Weaver (as an immediately-suspicious high-level intelligence officer). Much of the film is straight out of the “man running for his life” thriller sub-genre, and while director Mabrouk El Mechri has the occasional good eye for filming action scenes, they feel overlong and perfunctory in the middle of such a familiar framework. (The final car chase definitely has its moments, but it’s too long by at least half its duration) While The Cold Light of Day will act as a pretty good showcase for Madrid’s tourist attractions, it’s not much of a calling card for anyone else involved: the characters are uninvolving, the narrative excitement is flat and nearly everything about the film seems wasted. For a film produced with decent means and known actors, there isn’t much here to distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill TV movie.
(Video on Demand, May 2013) For an actress I didn’t even know at the beginning of the month, I’m suddenly quite impressed by Rebecca Hall’s screen presence and the range she shows from the “hero scientist” of Iron Man 3 to the “ice-cold English noble” of Parade’s End to the “trailer-park chic” of her role in Lay the Favorite. [July 2013: Although the “non-nonsense pragmatist” of The Awakening and Vicky Cristina Barcelona suggest that Lay the Favorite is a bit of an outlier.] Her performance is one of the few things that transform the somewhat ordinary script for Lay the Favorite to something worth remembering the day after. A gambling comedy set in the sports-bookie world of Las Vegas, it at least has the merit of exploring a new subculture and doing so with just enough style to be interesting. Much of the plotting is purely serviceable, with the expected story beats all carefully lined up in a row. But it’s light-hearted enough to be unobjectionable and one suspects that the light breezy tone has a lot to do with how it landed notables such as a smiling Bruce Willis in the lead, usually-reprehensible Vince Vaughn as an antagonist of sorts, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in another of her increasingly-frequent strong supporting roles. Still, the film really belongs to Hall, and she makes the most of her role, even elevating the somewhat slight film built around it. Despite weak romances, tonal inconsistencies and a dull ending, she’s the reason why Lay the Favorite remains watchable throughout and leaves a generally favorable impression even despite its familiarity and lack of substance.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) I had trouble enjoying writer/director Wes Anderson’s earliest films, but with 2007’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and now Moonrise Kingdom, things may be turning around. I’m not the same person who saw Anderson’s first films as they appeared in theaters, obviously, and Moonrise Kingdom is a lot like Fantastic Mr. Fox in that it takes Anderson’s fascination for the twee presentation of flawed characters and puts them in a more broadly accessible context than, say, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Simply put, here we get kids acting like adults rather than adults acting like kids and that makes a huge difference: As Moonrise Kingdom follows the repercussions of two 12-year-olds eloping together, the film feels charming, comic and affectionate at once. A strong cast of eccentric adult characters (Bruce Willis as a policeman, a pitch-perfect Edward Norton as scoutmaster, hangdog Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton as a social services meddler) acts as a good foil for teenage protagonists Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward. Moonrise Kingdom’s whimsical tone seems perfectly controlled, and it’s hard to watch the film without looking forward to the next trick to come out of Anderson’s fertile imagination. It’s an odd film, with comparisons to be found mainly in Anderson’s cinematography (well, maybe that of Jared Hess as well), but it works better than it should. I’m calling Moonrise Kingdom a pleasant surprise, especially given that I expected practically nothing from it. I may, however, expect more from Anderson in the future.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are quite a few things that annoy me about Looper: The inanity of its time-traveling premise, the slap-dash way its future is assembled, the way the two main stories of the film don’t seem to mesh seamlessly, the lengthy time-out in the third quarter of the film… all elements that could and should have been fixed. But these doubts having been expressed, let us not be distracted from the fact that Looper remains one of the strongest SF films of 2012 in a relatively crowded field: It’s a solid movie, a confident effort that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience and engages with provocative questions about our relationship with ourselves (in the first plot-line) and our duty to the future (in the second). Joseph Gordon-Lewitt stars as the younger version of a character also played by Bruce Willis, but it’s writer/director Rian Johnson who emerges as the big winner of the film: not only does he turn in an accomplished piece of cinema, he also plays with SF archetypes in a refreshing matter-of-fact fashion that allows him to use those elements to get to the core of the drama he wants to set up. Looper goes effortlessly from the streets to the cornfields, striking a Midwest SF atmosphere that feels refreshingly different from many of the other recent SF blockbusters. While the script has weaker points, it manages to present a few complex ideas cleanly, and its second half’s sense of moral uncertainty is uncanny in the best sense. For SF fans who are tired of the same old visually-spectacular-but-dramatically-hollow products, Looper is a small triumph and another entry in the mini-boom of good original cinematic SF since District 9.
(In theaters, November 2010) By now, the action/comedy genre is so familiar that everyone should cheer whenever a quirky off-beat project tries to do something differently. While originality isn’t always an advantage (Knight and Day showed that quirkiness can’t replace solid screenwriting), films like Red can tweak the usual formula and make it feel just a bit fresher than usual. The story is familiar (a renegade secret agent tries to find out who wants him dead, accompanied by a reluctant love interest), but the details aren’t as overused: The agent is retired, his allies are old and paranoid, his enemies are deep within the government and his would-be girlfriend initially has to be tied, drugged and dragged along before she comes to appreciate the action-comedy lifestyle. Red flies around the United States, literally showing postcards along the way –which may give you an idea of its particular sense of humour. Bruce Willis may be the Red’s headliner, but the real appeal of the film is through Mary Louise Parker’s wide-eyed evolution from house-bound kitten to adrenaline junkie. Helen Mirren is delightful as an aging assassin, while John Malkovich has a typical turn as a deeply paranoid retiree. Action highlights include a shootout in New Orleans and the use of heavy artillery in a Chicago hotel parking lot. Much of the plot is routine, but the film is a lot more enjoyable during the comedic moments between the characters. Fans of the original comic book may want to forget all about the source material, because Red is quirky and light-hearted whereas Warren Ellis’ story was sombre and nihilistic. While Red often goes spinning too fast in all sorts of directions to be truly effective, the result isn’t too bad as long as you don’t expect the sort of straight-ahead action-with-quips blockbuster: Red is handled with another kind of sensibility, and if the result is often a bit too off-beat to be fully enjoyable, it delivers what is expected with a little bonus that no one asked for.