(On Cable TV, November 2016) There’s an amazingly thin line between emotional effectiveness and straight-up manipulation, and If I Stay kept hopping around that line far too often to my liking. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches, beginning with a terrible car crash and then gradually killing off the protagonist’s family member one by one. The supernatural aspect of the film allows the protagonist to run around a hospital in-between flashbacks and news of her family’s extinction as she decides to stay or go in the afterlife. If that sounds like a lot of melodrama, then further brace yourselves, because If I Stay is shameless in the way it creates more romantic drama out of nowhere and blends everything with an artificial dilemma for our college-bound over-coddled heroine. Not being from a musical background, I kept changing my mind on whether the film’s idealistic focus on music was endearing or pretentious. (I settled on endearing, but it was a challenge at time.) Chloe Moretz is not bad as the main character, although the film’s strongest scenes are the ensemble sequences in which the family comes together. The film really wants viewers to cry and doesn’t mess around during its three-ring climax—if grandpa’s speech doesn’t get you, then the boyfriend’s song or the protagonist’s decision will. If I Stay is semi-effective in that it sometimes works, but the manipulation is obvious and is likely to make some members of the audience resent the film. But so it goes for romantic dramas—if you won’t like the ride, don’t buy the ticket.
(On TV, October 2016) The tale of Carrie and its remake is almost identical to the one of every other classic horror film and their remake. The remake is usually faithful to the overall structure of the story, but strips away most of the original’s rougher edges and leaves a shorter, slicker but generally featureless remake. Updating the references usually doesn’t mean much for the overall film (who cares if it’s uploaded to YouTube?), while the overall better technical credentials usually mean a less bumpy viewing experience. Seen back-to-back with the original, this Carrie remake is most notable for considerably speeding up the languid pacing of the original: despite being a minute longer, it often feels more evenly interesting than the original, with fewer digressions and dead moments along the way. (Witness the way two scenes featuring the other girls are combined early on as an illustration of how today’s scripts are far more efficient.) While the film is said to go back to Stephen King’s original novel, there’s no doubt that the original film is the template on which this remake is built. Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t bad as the titular Carrie, while Julianne Moore brings considerable credibility to the mother’s role and Judy Greer gets a more substantial role than usual as the sympathetic gym teacher. Kimberley Pierce’s direction is much flatter than the original, though, which helps this remake rank as technically better but far more forgettable.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) I disliked several aspects of the original Kick-Ass, so in saying that this sequel isn’t as bad merely means that I’m not as repulsed by the results. Not that it’s all that better: the same hypocrisy that permeated the original is on full display here, as an attempt to somehow satirize superheroes conventions ends up doing exactly the same thing, except with extra puerile arrogance. Kick-Ass 2 seems inordinately pleased with its ability to swear as much at it likes, or to indulge is as much pointless violence. The film isn’t merely hobbled by its male gaze –it’s made actively unpleasant by its teenaged male gaze: When more mature viewers are already convinced that taking up a superhero identity is for idiots, the film’s inevitable attempt to show normalcy turning on the characters is far more annoying than satisfying. There are a few good things to say about the film’s younger actors (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Chloë Grace Moretz have all grown up a bit since the previous film, and it generally suits them) but Jeff Wadlow’s direction is far more ordinary than Matthew Vaughn’s work in the first film, and whatever shocking qualities the original had are here dispersed into a multiplicity of calculated subplots shot indifferently. So: not as unpleasant, but still not good. Hopefully there will never be a third film.
(In theatres, March 2010) Every year, there are now a few movies that make me feel old. Old, as in having finally escaped the sociopathic, bloodthirsty, surface-obsessed 16-32 age bracket. Old, as in rolling my eyes at conscious attempts at shock spectacle. Old, as in not being overly amused by films catering to the comic-book crowd that thinks that R-rated films in which they have to sneak into are necessarily better than anything else. Old enough, in short, to be left cold by Kick-Ass’s deliberate crassness, buckets of spilt blood, titular profanity and general hypocrisy. Nominally a “realistic” attempt to fit super-heroes in the real-world, Kick-Ass ends up in the same super-heroic fantasy world it claims to avoid in the first few minutes. Compared to Mark Millar’s original comic book (which is quite a bit harsher, although not that much more respectable), the film is generally lighter, often better-structured and ends on the kind of conclusion fit to leave anyone exit the theatres whistling happily. Never mind the sociopathic 12-year-old girl that murders without remorse, the convenient Mafioso villains or the jaundiced view of an alternate world where super-heroism is needed. There’s a reason why I never fit into comic-book culture, and Kick-Ass only reminded me of about a dozen of them. And yet, despite everything (and the blood-thirsty jackals braying for gore and laughing inappropriately during my screening at the Brighton Odeon), I still found a lot to like in this film. The rhythm is energetic, Matthew Vaughn’s direction shows moments of inspiration, Chloe Moretz is more adorable as a tween killer than you’d expect and the movie features not one, but two tracks from The Prodigy’s Invaders Must Die album. When it works, Kick-Ass is a darkly comic film that almost has something to say about superhero power fantasies. When it doesn’t, though, it’s just another reminder that I’m now over the hill in terms of pop entertainment. Now let me shake my fist at those lawn-trampling younglings and mutter unintelligibly in my creaky rocking chair.