(On Cable TV, December 2018) It’s still far too early to start issuing definitive statements about Jim Carrey’s career, but with a bit of perspective it’s clear that by the early 2010s, he was still switching between the kinds of slapstick high-energy performances and more nuanced character work, not always comic. For old-school Carrey fans, the treat with Mr. Popper’s Penguins was seeing Carrey back in unapologetic slapstick form, even in a movie aimed at kids. The story here boils down to a workaholic Manhattanite realtor inheriting a few penguins in his high-rise apartments. Will it help him reconnect with his estranged ex-wife and kids? Well, of course it will. That’s not the point. The point are the penguins’ antics and how Carrey will react to them—or specifically how often he’ll slip on something and fall. While the CGI required to portray the penguins isn’t always convincing, it certainly gets the point across and lets the movie make its jokes. As usual for those kinds of comedies, the real fun of the film is to be found in the details: I was quite taken, for instance, by the protagonist’s assistant (played by Ophelia Lovibond) peppering her speeches with P-words. Carrey is almost up to form, while Carla Gugino does serviceable work in a rather dull role as the ex-wife. Rather amiable and conventional, Mr. Popper’s Penguins won’t be anyone’s idea of a great movie, but it does get us Carrey indulging in a lot of physical comedy, which is a good compensation.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) The good news, I suppose, is that the Young Adult Science Fiction field has grown tired of endless dystopias and now seems ready to take on other clichés. Things like star-crossed romance between a Martian-born teenager and his earthling pen pal. Considering the focus here on teenage protagonists and the romantic pretext to the film, it’s really no surprise to see that The Space Between Us doesn’t hold up as serious Science Fiction: the mistakes start early and get increasingly implausible with time, and even the knowledge that we’re not supposed to worry about those in a film made for romance aren’t enough to bring us back into the story. Then there’s the severely formulaic and forgettable nature of the film’s plot, including its buddy robots, dumb plot-driven choices, fish-out-of-water comic bits and lovers on the run. It’s all not just familiar, but done without much grace nor wit. It ends with a conclusion that you could have guessed after seeing the poster. Good supporting actors (Gary Oldman and Carla Gugino, for instance) can’t save the film from terminal boredom. Granted, I’m more than twice the age of the target audience for The Space Between Us … but still: would it be too much to ask for a minimum of competence even for younger audiences?
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I first read Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game decades ago, but I was able to remember a surprising amount of it while watching its straight-to-Netflix adaptation. Thanks to writer/director Mike Flanagan (following up on a series of increasingly successful horror movies), the adaptation is surprisingly faithful, a feat made even more amazing given that the novel is as interior-driven as anything else in King’s biography. After all, how can you portray a woman being chained to a bed and left alone with her husband’s corpse for days? What Flanagan does, aside from the obvious use of flashbacks, is to literalize the heroine’s fantasies and delirious visions: Suddenly, the deceased husband gets up, talks to her and gets her to express her feelings. And then, later, there are other, more tangible horrors: A dog, then something else… And still, throughout, the terrors of being left to die alone. The thirst, the cold, the isolation. Carla Gugino is near a career-best performance in the lead role, being on-screen for almost the entire duration of Gerald’s Game and being asked to carry a wide range of emotions. Bruce Greenwood does get a mention for his not-so-brief time playing a not-so-good husband. The film is so close to the novel that it does share a few issues later on, namely the collision of a good-enough premise with a serial killer story that doesn’t entirely serve the rest of the plot. I was dubious about it when I read the novel so long ago and I’m still dubious about it now. Still, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t add much, so what is left of Gerald’s Game is still remarkable. Flanagan has done much with little (the film has only barely a dozen roles in a largely single location), delivering quality chills and thrills in a compelling package. This is probably his best film yet, and it suggests even better things in the future.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) One of the benefits of being an omnivorous cinephile is that you never know when an oddball piece of cinematic knowledge is going to come in handy. In this case, Girl Walks Into a Bar‘s quirks makes far more sense when considered against writer/director Sebastián Gutiérrez previous films such as Elektra Luxx: the lead role of Carla Gugino (Gutiérrez’s girlfriend), fragmented script, interlocking subplots, varying tonal shifts, generally clever dialogue and presence of several good actors. It’s all meant to be a series of related stories set in various Los Angeles bars during one busy night, but it’s just as well-considered as a vignette film, with segments that don’t necessarily need to co-exist harmoniously in a coherent whole. There are highlights: Emmanuelle Chriqui’s world-weary monologue about the life of a stripper, Zachary Quinto’s clueless dentist trying to get his wife assassinated; Rosario Dawson as an employee of a nudist ping-pong club and a captivating presence for Robert Forster. While the film was conceived to be freely distributed on Youtube (although just for Americans…), it’s now making its way to specialty cable channels and can be caught there as a pleasant diversion. While Girl Walks Into a Bar is not particularly memorable, it does have a good cast, better-than-average dialogue and its inherent quirkiness makes it more interesting that most of the average fare out there.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Naive viewers may expect movies about porn stars to be at least interesting, but in a textbook example of false-titillation, Elektra Luxx is low in nudity and high in laugh-free art-house comedy. Viewers who stumble on this film without knowing that it’s a direct sequel to Women in Trouble may have a hard time figuring out the relationship between the various plot strands that make up the film, especially when at least one of them remains unconnected to the rest. Of course, excuses of sequelitis only go so far in making audience forgive a wildly inconsistent pace, dull dialogues, indifferent characters and lack of entertainment value. Carla Gugino may vamp it up as porn star Elektra Luxx, and be surrounded by an impressive supporting cast going from Joseph Gordon-Hewitt to Julianne Moore, but there just isn’t much to the film itself. Interest starts slipping away after half an hour, never to return. There are, to be fair, a few interesting strands here and there; the evolution of a woman “from porn star to functioning adult” is promising… but Elektra Luxx itself is too scattered to do justice to the premise. Bits and pieces of interest can’t make up for a largely indifferent film; there are better choices out there.