(On Cable TV, December 2019) As much as it pains me as a movie critic to recognize that someone else (I forget who) said it best, the biggest problem with Men in Black: International is that it takes a blue-collar premise and tries to make it glamorous globetrotting. This shouldn’t be much of a revelation—after all, much of the humour of the first film boiled down to the sight of two policemen being confronted to the hidden wonders of the universe and taking a decidedly jaded approach to it all. The sequels faltered when they went too big, and Men in Black: International again stumbles when it expands the mythology of the series into international espionage intrigue—this is not what the series is about, and the laughs get increasingly distant the more you get away from the initial core idea. I’ll give it one thing, though: the absence of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones isn’t that big of a deal when they’re replaced by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. (Regular readers of these reviews know how much I like Thompson, so I won’t dwell on it again. Much.) The decision to take the series out of New York City to a country-hopping series of episodes isn’t as compelling, though, and ties into the film losing the focus of the series. None of this would necessarily be fatal if the execution had been up to par, but unfortunately it isn’t—the plot is basic by espionage standards (since that’s the standard that the film is going for) and the identity of the mole being hunted throughout the film is absurdly, insultingly easy to guess well ahead of time. The jokes frequently fall flat, and even the magnetic charm of the lead actors can’t save the film from falling flat. There’s quite a bit of dashed expectations here—the series was uneven—but even low expectations wouldn’t have saved Men in Black: International from the constant disappointment of the film being unable to make good use of its potential. Some behind-the-scenes drama may explain the dismal result (through a bad case of producer interference) but the damage is done and doesn’t care about production problems: the film as available is more forgettable than anything else once you throw in the lead actors and that’s a clear step down from even the divisive second and third instalments. Save the world, stop the sequels.
(On Cable TV, September 2019) Considering my surprising fondness for romantic comedies and my interest in meta-fictional conceit, I really thought I’d enjoy Isn’t It Romantic more, especially as it explicitly takes on the rom-com as a target for satire. The Big Idea here is to have our deeply skeptical protagonist put in a coma and thrust in the middle of an alternate romcom-focused reality of her own life. As she wonders at how things are now colourful and nice and convenient, she also complains at all the clichés around her. It should work … except that as a star vehicle for Rebel Wilson, Isn’t It Romantic starts sharing some of the same annoyances that her comic persona can create. Nothing is subtle here: the film makes sure to underline each joke three times, setting it up with blatant exposition and then having characters comment once or twice about the same thing that viewers caught moments earlier. It starts feeling like a desperate comedian convinced he’s bombing after a while, as the film thrusts each joke in our face and makes sure we acknowledge its existence. The film, like Wilson herself, could use a bit of self-respect and restraint…. Although that’s a near-impossible request considering what Wilson does in one movie after another. (She’s one of those comedians who work far better as an ensemble cast member than a lead.) No matter the reason, I usually found myself more annoyed than charmed by the result, and I’m not even holding the film’s embrace of the clichés it portrays against it. The musical numbers feel forced (and I usually love musical numbers), the careful worldbuilding is brought to the forefront time and time again, and the dialogue takes pleasure in being as obvious as possible, even in a metafictional context. Despite liking most of the actors here (and Chris Hemsworth does once again affirm his talent for comedy), Isn’t it Romantic is more annoying than anything else—a waste of a good concept that makes even the flawed They Came Together look far better in comparison. I may not have been in the best of moods in watching the film, but there’s something more than just not feeling it—it’s a film with significant issues of its own.
(On Cable TV, June 2019) I’m about three-quarter satisfied by Bad Times at the El Royale, which means that it’s worth a watch but also worth keeping expectations in check until the end. That’s admittedly difficult to do at the beginning of the movie, as writer-director Drew Goddard carefully sets up an irresistible situation with a motel carefully split down the middle of two states, and assembles a crew of characters with deep secrets. There’s a rising anticipation throughout the film’s first thirty minutes as we don’t quite know what’s going on or where it’s going—only that this is a very stylish crime thriller and that we’re in for quite a ride. The film gets better once the secrets start spilling out, with nearly every character not being what they initially appear to be, and some masterful sequences along the way: Goddard is guiding viewers to and away from genre expectations through his showy screenwriting and direction, and it’s that delicious self-awareness that propels much of the film’s first two acts. A conspicuous but enjoyable soundtrack does tie up everything in a great package. The cast is exceptional, in between known names such as Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth—but it’s lesser-known Cynthia Erivo who’s the revelation here. (Bizarrely, French-Canadian Wunderkind Xavier Dolan also appears in a small evil role.) Alas, all of this is a bit too good to stay true: the promise of the film ends up being better than its execution when its second half settles down for a far more familiar kind of thriller, losing speed and breaking the unity of space and time by adding new characters, new situations and new directions in a moment. Suddenly, the breakneck pacing of the film slows down to a crawl, and we’re left with a frustrating number of characters doing far less interesting things. It’s not a good idea to put the climactic scene in the middle of the film rather than at the end. Still, I really liked Bad Times at the El Royale despite its flaws—that first half is an intoxicating bit of filmmaking, and settling for a merely good second half isn’t quite enough to make the film not worth a look. At this point, I’ll watch nearly anything that Goddard does … but I do wish he’d be more consistent.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Despite Hollywood’s supposedly left-leaning tendencies, it can be counted upon to deliver, year after year, a reliable stream of pro-war statements wrapped in the American flag, family values and unquestioned imperialism. The latest entry in the subgenre is 12 Strong, which heads back to the woolly post-9/11 days when the United States boldly invaded Afghanistan half a world away. Such initial force projection isn’t easy, and so the first boots on the ground belong to Special Forces, leading the charge that more conventional military troops would later follow. Afghanistan is not an easy country to invade, and much of 12 Strong portrays the adaptations of the American soldiers as the CIA sets up factions against each other. Our protagonists eventually take up horses as the only workable transportation in the country, leading to a somewhat surreal scene featuring a 21st-century cavalry charge. Surprisingly enough, 12 Strong ends with everyone making it back home against overwhelming odds, marking a rather pleasant change of pace given the number of movies focusing on recent American military disasters with few survivors. This is not a particularly deep film—there is practically not introspection here about the wisdom of invading other countries, nor about the looming quagmire that would sweep up American (and Canadian!) troops over there for almost two decades. The dramatic arcs of the film play on familiar threads: family, safety, and bonds between men under combat. Only the cavalry aspect of the film distinguishes it from so many other similar efforts. Still, the film is a decently entertaining watch under Nicolai Fuglsig’s direction. It does help that it features terrific actors: in between Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and William Fichtner, the cast is a bit too good for the limited material, but they do give it a dramatic heft. It’s too long for its own good, and even then doesn’t quite manage to flesh out its characterization. But it does come alive in battle scenes, and documents an underappreciated facet of the Afghan invasion. At times, 12 Strong feels like a throwback to the war-is-an-adventure school of filmmaking, but that’s a nice change of pace from the overly ponderous war movies of late.
(Video On-Demand, April 2018) I really wasn’t expecting Thor: Ragnarok to be anything more than a self-imposed completionist task on the way to Avengers: Infinity War. I found the first two Thor movies to be among the weakest of the MCU so far, both dull and imbued of their own nonsensical self-importance. Thor-the-character I liked largely because of Chris Hemsworth’s charm, and Loki is fine as one of the MCU’s most compelling antagonists, but the rest of the series was a chore—a small-town battle in the first film made for a poor high point, whereas the second film’s gleeful waddling in its own uninteresting mythology had me despairing about its self-referentiality. But a change of pace can do wonders, and it doesn’t take a long time for Ragnarok to highlight its difference. Under screenwriter/director Taika Waititi’s particular sensibilities, Thor become much funnier, much looser, and far more interesting. The ponderous visual atmosphere becomes influenced by rock music iconography, and a pitch-perfect use of The Immigrant Song makes for a showcase opening sequence that tells out that it’s fine to forget about the two previous movies. As a matter of fact, the opening of Ragnarok is so jolly, fast paced and self-deprecating that it made me worry that the film would be an insubstantial series of jokes without weight. But as it turns out, the film actually becomes more efficient once its charming hooks are deeply embedded: As the film builds its dramatic tension, the humour is balanced by action and drama and the result is quite effective despite almost completely destroying one of the MCU’s major settings along the way. It helps that Hemsworth meets a worthwhile match in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie in terms of charisma—once you factor in Jeff Goldblum as an antagonist, Cate Blanchett proving that she can do darkly sexy and surprise appearances by a few MCU regulars, the film remains great good fun throughout. Waititi knows how to make a film that moves (his Valkyrie sequences are visually spectacular and innovative, which isn’t something we often say within the MCU), and the trip to another planet isn’t a distraction from the overall series. Ragnarok leaps over its limp prequels to become one of my favourite MCU films, which really wasn’t something I was expecting when I started to watch it.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The current crop of fantasy films seems hell-bent on proving that even wall-to-wall special effects can’t ensure a film that will be remembered once the end credits roll. I’ve had issues in the past with trying to write reviews of dull fantasy movies weeks after seeing the movie, but with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, I’m not taking any chances: I’m writing this the lunchtime after, because the longer I wait the less I’m going to remember any of it. It’s dull enough that I even have problems the day after. Once again, the fairy-tale inspiration has been squished through the Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting machine to produce extruded product clearly more inspired by past movies than by any kind of personal statement. This wholly unnecessary sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman completely evacuates Snow White (other than a few bogeyman-like references) to focus on the Huntsman as he’s thrown into another adventure involving the Evil Queen’s sister. Or something like that. As I said; it’s not a good movie, and it can’t even manage to be a memorable one. I think it’s slightly better than the original, but that’s by the sole virtue of not having Kirsten Stewart anywhere near the screen. Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth are back and they’re generally tolerable. Emily Blunt is (hilariously enough) being asked to play the more-evil-than-evil sister and the result is as unconvincing as it is disappointing. More hilariously, Jessica Chastain shows up in a skintight black leather suite to play an elite medieval assassin and that ends up being the most visually spectacular aspect of a film crammed with computer effects from beginning to end. While director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan tries his best to keep the film propped up, he can’t do much with the incoherent script that stumbles from a prequel to the sequel to the first film and never quite figures out whether it wants to be a follow-up, a Snow-Queen influenced sideshow or its own thing about love and other meaningless blather. It’s profoundly uninteresting despite the occasionally good visuals and it pretty much autodestructs upon viewing. It’s films like The Huntsman: Winter’s War that not give the fantasy genre a bad name—how about we drop the special effects and get back to an actual sense of wonder instead?
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Blackhat is not a great film, but it’s interesting largely in how it tries to assimilate contemporary innovations in a standard thriller template. Sure, here we have a tainted protagonist trying to catch a bad guy before he wreaks more damage. But we also have sequences trying to portray computer hacking, delving deep into machines, whizzing along the bit-flow and trying to portray how bytes of information sent with evil intent can cause physical damage and human misery. It takes an audacious director like Michael Mann to even try that kind of stuff, and it’s also why, despite the film’s generally hum-drum impact, it’s worthy of a look. Fans of conventional thrillers should at least get basic satisfaction from the way the film moves around the world, pits a dangerous hero against an unknown opponent and delves a bit into information security minutia in-between the more conventional chases and gun battles. The I.T.-Security lingo sounds OK, but it matters more that Blackhat can benefit from Chris Hemsworth’s charisma, as well as good supporting performances by Viola Davis, Leehom Wang and Tang Wei. Never mind the leaps of logic in seeing the cyber-criminal protagonist suddenly become an action hero –the film is more realistic in its details than in its overall plotting. The end result is muddled, but there’s enough good in here to sustain interest.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Given the speed and excitement of Formula 1 racing, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more movies about the sport. Considering Rush, though, the wait has been worth it: Easily eclipsing 2001’s Driven, this historical bio-drama has everything we’d wish for in a racing film, and strong historical accuracy as a bonus. Centered around the 1976 Formula 1 season in which British racer Daniel Hunt competed against Austrian legend Nikki Lauda, Rush is an actor’s showcase, a convincing period recreation, a virtuoso blend of special effects and crackling good drama. Expertly directed by Ron Howard, it’s gripping from the very first moments, pitting a charismatic playboy and a valorous technician against each other. Howard’s direction doesn’t stay still for long, and does a fine job at summarizing an eventful season’s worth of incidents into a striking whole. The atmosphere of the high-flying 1970s Formula 1 circuit is impressively conveyed, including impressive race sequences with period cars. (Was is done with CGI or practical? It doesn’t matter when the film is that good.) Much of Rush‘s effectiveness boils down to its two lead actors: Chris Hemsworth makes full use of his charisma as the seductive Hunt, his brashness clashing against the methodical Lauda very well-played by Daniel Bruhl. The two make for compelling rivals, and Rush makes maximum use of their conflict in allowing us a peek into the mind of top-notch race drivers. As exciting for its dialogue scenes than for its racing action, Rush may not look like much on paper, but becomes steadily engrossing without any effort from the viewer.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) I said it about the first movie and I’ll say it again because it’s important: I don’t really care about the entire mythology of Marvel’s Thor character. It’s a hodgepodge of fantasy concepts all blended together and I can’t make myself to care about Asgaard’s sixteen worlds of wonder or whatever. The hammer is lame, the palace intrigue is dull, Thor looks silly and the material with his faithful companions (or, again, whatever) is so under-developed as to be a waste of footage. So it’s no surprise if Thor 2 feels like such a slog in-between the passable parts. I still find Chris Hemsworth compelling in the title role, I’m not entirely immune to Tom Hiddleston’s charming villainous performance as Loki and there are a few nice special effects sequences here and there. But once the geekery cranks up into a salad of made-up words, I’m left rolling my eyes and thanking my own good luck that I never got into comics in any serious way. I’m still frustrated by the absence of thematic depth to the Thor films, and felt my fleeting interest dwindle the longer the film was away from Thor or Loki. I’ll tolerate the result if it means we get another Avengers film out of it, but come Thor 3‘s opening day, look for me anywhere but in the movie theaters showing it. I don’t care and it increasingly looks as if no one can make me care.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Most remakes are useless, but this one is more useless than most. The original Red Dawn was a product of its time: a Reagan-era jingoistic anthem that dared take an implausible premise (The United States gets physically invaded by its enemies) and run with in in full macho glory. This time around, though, the premise is flat-out impossible enough that the film never gets past its own ability to suspend disbelief. It doesn’t help that there’s little of value in Red Dawn: At best, it’s a by-the-number treatment of an obvious premise, with a few good action sequences and some likable young actors (most notably Chris Hemsworth) in the lead roles. There’s practically no thematic depth: the most intriguing idea (that the Americans are suddenly forced in the insurgency role they confronted in their recent military excursions) isn’t developed beyond a brief mention, and it gets turned into patriotic pap anyway. For a more intriguing treatment of the same basic idea, adventurous viewers are advised to take a look at the 2010 Australian invasion film Tomorrow, When the War Began, which isn’t all that good, but certainly feels more interesting than this limp American effort.
(On-demand, September 2012) Given the latest decade of post-Lord of the Rings fantasy films, re-imagining the Snow White fairytale as epic fantasy wasn’t such a conceptual leap. Here’s the evil queen, here are the rebels, here is Snow White as a symbol of the old order to be restored… not bad. Or rather; would have been not bad had someone with some skill had written the script, and someone vastly more talented been the lead protagonist. Because, even though I like Kristen Stewart in specific doses (Adventureland, anyone?), her range as a dour emotionless actress just isn’t wide enough to accommodate what she’s being asked to do here. Would it kill her to smile, laugh, squee or have fun once in a while? Not that the issues stop here, what with a medieval-ish land that clearly has pagan magic and a Christian prayer in it: It’s never too clear whether the universe of this film is supposed to be realist with a bit of magic or a fully-magical secondary universe. No matter, though, because plot contrivances really drive this story, along with misguided told-not-shown romance, dropped plot threads, blindingly-obvious foreshadowing and other problems. At least two people come out if this film with reputations intact: Charlize Theron as the evil queen with more humanity than the protagonist, and Chris Hemsworth as the gruff titular huntsman. Below the line, the people who worked on the film’s visual elements should also give themselves a pat on the back: there’s some nice work here, most notably in the scene-setting of the fairyland segments. Alas, it’s a moment that clashes with the grittiness of the rest of the film and feels largely useless as a plot element, something that extends to the seven dwarves of the Snow White legend. (In a further twist, a number of famous non-dwarves actors play the somewhat superfluous dwarves, something so staggeringly useless as to defy explanation.) For all of the visual impact of the film, Snow White and the Hunstman is almost completely empty of interest: the plot staggers and spurts ahead without forward momentum, and the result is boring. 2012 has seen two disappointing big-screen versions of the Snow White fairytale, but if I’d have to choose, I’d rather sit through Mirror, Mirror once again.
(In theaters, May 2011) I went into this film not understanding why it existed, and came out of it just as baffled. Granted, I’m not a fan of the comic-book character: I don’t even recall reading an issue of the source material. But unlike better comic-book movies, Thor has no point, no thematic depth and no reason for existing other than setting up the upcoming Avengers film. (At best, those looking for a message will find out that it’s anti-adoption agitprop.) As the film sets up its background in the fantasyland of Asgard, I found myself wishing that the film could go back to Earth, to Natalie Portman (as little as she has to do here) and to something I could care about. Otherwise, it’s all pompous accents, aliens, palace intrigue and invented mythologies that (I’m guessing) teenagers will love a lot more than I do. Am I losing the ability to care about fantasy movies? Maybe, but it’s not as if Thor gives me any reason to care. I’ll grant at least one thing, though: it’s got a certain visual style, and some of the Asgard sequences are pretty. Chris Hemsworth is also very good in the title role: Few other actors could have pulled the arch dialogue and regal bearing without looking ridiculous. Otherwise, it’s more interesting to see how the film exists in continuity with the other Marvel-universe movies, from the return appearance of a few SHIELD agents to Jeremy Renner’s cameo as Hawkeye to the now-requisite post-credit sequence. While I wouldn’t go as far as calling Thor dull or uninvolving, it does feel like a low-expectation, low-results kind of film: the scaled-back main-street fight scene is a clear example of that. Thor does brings back to mind the kind of underwhelming comic-book films that we used to get before filmmakers realized that they had to put some depth into it. To say that Kevin Branagh is behind it all almost boggles the mind.