(On Cable TV, February 2018) Now that the modern superhero film genre is nearly old enough to vote (not-so-arbitrarily ignoring 1997’s Blade and anointing 2001’s X-Men as the first of its subgenre), there is a real risk of superhero fatigue—in particular, the tendency for lead superheroes to be white men is getting particularly annoying—where are the alternatives, the diverse voices, the ways to use the superhero genre to poke at other kinds of issues beyond power fantasies? Then there is the dismal results of the so-called “DC Cinematic Universe” movies, deadened by disappointing films in the wake of Man of Steel. Expectations were mixed about Wonder Woman, hoping that the film would take advantage of the heroine’s gender (especially given director Patty Jenkins as a rare female director taking on the reigns of a blockbuster production) but not expecting much from the DCU track record. The result, fortunately, is quite a bit better than expectations. While Wonder Woman ultimately does not deviate all that much from the usual super-heroic template all the way to the final apocalyptic battle, it does have a few nice moments of doubt and confusion along the way, augmented by wonderful character moments and great period detail along the way. Gal Gadot truly stars as Wonder Woman, bringing looks, humour, action proficiency and quite a bit of charm to a role that requires some deftness in bringing it all together. Good writing makes the middle London-set “fish out of water” sequence curiously enjoyable. Chris Pine is quite good as the love interest, with noteworthy appearances by Danny Huston, Robin Wright, David Thewes and Lucy Davis along the way. It’s hard to underestimate the difference made by not having a male gaze on the entire film—thanks to director Jenkins, we get a female heroine (and supporting cast of amazon) that is credibly fierce on its own terms, and not necessarily presented as a male fantasy—although it can also work as such. Serious but entertaining, as earnest and non-cynical as a modern superhero movie can be, Wonder Woman is the best film so far in the DCU by a significant margin (it helps that it doesn’t tie itself too tightly to a mega-continuity), and a definitive affirmation of why we need more diverse voices in mainstream blockbuster filmmaking.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) I had been waiting for Stretch for years. A new film by writer/director Joe Carnahan? Yes, but after two years in post-production hell, Stretch was never shown in theatres and its release on the VOD market was quiet enough to go unnoticed—I learned about the film from an article about how Netflix was changing the distribution market. But it took another three years for Stretch to make it to Canadian Netflix, and I ended up watching it within days of its availability. Verdict? It’s the Carnahan movie I was waiting for: fast-paced, darkly comic, strangely conceived, tightly edited. It takes potshots at the insanity of Los Angeles, exploits Patrick Wilson’s charisma to its fullest extent and gets Chris Pine to deliver a wonderfully bizarre performance quite unlike anything an actor like him is expected to provide. Jessica Alba shows up as a gal-pal love interest, Ed Helms’ cackling voice-of-reason character has a mostly-posthumous presence … and that’s not even talking about David Hasselhoff or Ray Liotta. Produced on a shoestring $5M budget, Stretch looks ten times more expensive, and has more manic inventiveness in its 90-minutes duration than any three random Hollywood theatrical releases. The pedal-to-the-metal pacing of the film helps sell its weirdest quirks, as one day (and night) in the life of a limousine driver gets worse and worse. Stretch isn’t a great movie, but it’s pitch-perfect at reaching its target and it’s maddeningly entertaining for anyone who discovers it. I’m really annoyed that it’s still largely unknown, and somewhat grateful that, thanks to Netflix, it now has a fighting chance of being seen.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2017) It says much about today’s Hollywood that we’ve come to crave solid crime thrillers as an alternative to the usually undistinguishable dreck that has come to dominate multiplexes. Hell or High Water is a throwback to the time when this kind of crime drama, solidly acted, put together with skill, eschewing formula and taking on social issues, was a fixture rather than an exception. Here, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers trying to stop a bank’s takeover of their family farm by robbing branches of that very same bank. The populist anger runs raw in this film, which only heightens the drama when an affable veteran policeman (Jeff Bridges, gritty as ever) chases them across the state. The result is very much like a modern western, with SUVs replacing horses as our antiheroes go rob banks in small cities. It’s a solid script by Taylor Sheridan (who’s improving from movie to movie), and David Mackenzie’s direction effectively manages to portray East Texas in a credible fashion. It’s also, refreshingly, a movie that cares for even its minor characters: There are two waitress characters in the film, for instance, and both of them (Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman) get a few memorable moments well beyond the usual “here’s your food, sweetheart”. There are no clear good or bad guys here, as viewers’ loyalties are tested and the film refuses a conventionally uplifting resolution. This being said, Hell or High Water does ends leaving a sense of satisfaction at the way the story is wrapped up, having taken us on a ride unlike most other big-budget movies out there. As a standalone movie, it’s crunchy good viewing. As an antidote to the current Hollywood orthodoxy, though, it’s nothing short of delicious.
(On TV, May 2017) There really isn’t a whole lot to say about The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, other than it does take up the Disney Princess wish fulfillment of its target audience even beyond the high-water mark of the first film (but seriously: a lavish princess slumber party?). The plot is clearly for the kids (this is a movie in which the villain quickly announces himself sotto voice to the audience) and quickly cycles through an episodic series of misunderstandings and dirty tricks. Anne Hathaway stars, making everyone a bit nostalgic for the phase of her career when she could play the bubbly long-haired ingénue: as of 2017, it’s been awhile since we’ve seen her in anything but a series of increasingly dour roles. Also notable is Chris Pine as a love interest, young but already charismatic back then. Julie Andrews gets a few laughs, while John Rhys-Davies doesn’t get much to do but sneer as the villain. Much of the film is tough to review for a middle-aged man, as it’s clearly meant for pre-teen merriment. There’s some lip service paid to deflating the idea of an arranged royal marriage, but it’s almost immediately undercut by the romance between the lead couple. Ah well; everyone goes into this movie for proxy royal thrills rather than enlightenment about the tension between love and duty. The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement is a perceptible step down from the first film, but it should still please those who liked the first film a lot.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) I’ve been more upbeat than most Trekkers about the modern Star Trek reboot series, but even I have to admit that Star Trek: Beyond truly feels like the truest follow-up to the classic series so far. Structured as a standalone adventure in deep space, this third outing wisely focuses on smaller stakes, characters as developed in the first two movies, a bit of fan-service and an upbeat attitude that makes for a refreshing evolution from the first two films. In other words, it is pure classic Trek, done with today’s attitudes and special effects technology. The result may feel a bit restrained after the galaxy-spanning intrigue of In Darkness, but it’s also satisfying with fewer afterthoughts than in previous films. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) continue to be exceptionally good at incarnating the newest versions of their Trek characters, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Motorcycle usage aside, there’s one borderline-excessive “Sabotage” scene that harkens back to the first film, but it actually works well and is decently funny in itself. Still, the best aspect of the film has to be the look inside the Yorktown space station, a vertiginous showcase of SF dreams brought to life, visual effects and variable-gravity scene-blocking. It’s as memorable as anything is the series so far, and exactly the kind of showcase sequence to expect from a big-budget Trek film. I’m certainly ready for a fourth instalment.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There shouldn’t be a thin line between harrowing and boring, but The Finest Hours certainly does its damnedest to find one. From the first dull moments presenting a glossy vision of wholesome 1950s America (based on a true story), it’s obvious that this film is aimed at a particular audience, nostalgic for a simpler time when technology didn’t get in the way of pure determined heroism. The story of how a plucky under-equipped Coast Guard crew managed to rescue thirty-some sailors after their ship was split apart by a winter storm, The Finest Hours hits is best moments in its spectacular depiction of the catastrophe, of the almost impossible odds their rescuers faced and the numerous moments of action faced by the protagonists. (Chris Pine is also very good as the hero of the film.) Unfortunately, much of this excitement is quickly smothered by syrupy interludes that frame the action in a too-cute depiction of the 1950s American East Coast, in-between extended romantic drama, quickly extinguished interpersonal conflict and other dull moments. The Finest Hours is remarkably boring for a film that shows a merchant ship being ripped in half, and that’s the kind of impression that doesn’t make for a positive review. I’m sure that there is an audience for this film, and that audience looks a lot like one that goes for films that play on AMC on November 11. But for people who fall outside that demographic… The Finest Hours can be a long sit.
(On Cable TV, May 2016) As post-apocalyptic thrillers go, Z for Zachariah plays things more intimately than most. There are only three characters in the story, hence the drama: Margot Robbie initially stars as a young woman who has almost unexpectedly lived through a global nuclear disaster, her universe now limited to a small valley where the radioactive fallout can’t enter. She’s managing to hang on, but her world is turned upside down when she comes across another survivor, a scientist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Their relationship is difficult to begin with, yet things get even more complicated when a third man, much younger and friendlier (Chris Pine) also makes his way in the valley. The resulting tension isn’t pleasant for anyone, especially when science and religion are set up as mutually incompatible pursuits, and an unhealthy rivalry begins between the two men, leaving our heroin scared and disturbed from her lonely life. Far from being cheerful, Z for Zachariah works well as an acting showcase for all three actors (with Robbie earning a chance to prove the kind of dramatic talents that don’t fit with her persona in blockbuster movies) but get annoying when it aims for simplistic allegory. As a feminist twist on post-apocalyptic stories, it’s inconclusive—another five minutes of definitive resolution may have helped matters, especially given the liberties taken from the original novel. It amounts to a film that qualifies as mildly interesting but not essential, unless you’re a post-apocalyptic junkie or a fan of the three actors. At least it does a few unusual things in the sub-genre, and it handled with some competence.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) As someone who pretty much gave up on Tom Clancy after Teeth of the Tiger, I certainly took my time in watching Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an attempt to reboot Clancy’s best-known character for a younger generation. Derived from an original script that had nothing to do with Ryan, Shadow Recruit nonetheless ends up being a serviceable piece of entertainment, and one that does share a passing similarity to Clancy’s work. While the film remains an action thriller in which Ryan gets to run a bit and savagely beat down an opponent along the way, it does have a pretty good sequence in which Ryan proves his analytical creds as “the smartest guy in the room”, and the film does hint at the kind of geopolitical machinations so well-executed in Clancy’s thriller. Chris Pine is very likable as Ryan, and the broad strokes of his character are indeed those that Clancy gave to Ryan back in the eighties, updated to a post-9/11 generation. Director Kenneth Branagh gets to have some fun by playing the bad guy, while Kevin Costner is unremarkable in a mentor role. Still, Shadow Recruit is a reasonably entertaining thriller, despite a rather long introduction and the overall silliness of the scheme at the heart of the film (hint; the US dollar is a reserve currency. It can’t be brought down by simplistic financial manipulation, and any attempt to maintain otherwise will be met by laughter by Canadians watching their dollar sink relative the USD). While the box-office results suggest that the Clancy franchise won’t be rebooted, Shadow Recruit isn’t too bad as a standalone thriller – there have been far worse examples of the form lately.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) On paper, This Means War has a terrific (if risky) premise: What if two spies vied for the same woman? What could they do with the resources of the state at their disposal if the goal was all-and-out romance? It’s a promising idea, tempered only by the balance required to tone down the unbound misogynistic stalkerism inherent in the premise. But that’s asking far too much of director McG’s rather silly take on the idea, as he’s barely able to present the basic idea in an entertaining fashion. The fault, to be clear, isn’t in leads Chris Pine, Tom Hardy or Reese Witherspoon: All three are capable actors more than able to use their established screen persona to elevate the film above its true weight. But it’s just not a good script, and McG’s execution doesn’t do much to make it better –to the point where it’s easy to wonder what happened to the guy who delivered two relatively successful Charlie’s Angels film in the more or less the same vein. It’s easy to blame a mid-sized budget: This Means War was visibly shot in Vancouver (all the US Post boxes in the world can’t hide the Vancouver Public Library, President’s Choice breakfast cereal, or transform an HMV store into a video-rental place) and its obvious Hollywood gloss (spies in shiny high-tech offices, implausible apartments, CIA having access to priceless paintings, a foreign national working for the CIA… aaaagh.) only make it a lazy, contemptuous film. The most infuriating thing about it may be how it makes a mess out of a can’t-miss idea, a director who’s done good things in the past, and three actors who basically show up to play their usual kind of role. (Tom Hardy is particularly wasted given his chance to riff off his violent-guy persona into something more accessible.) While there are a few suitable scenes of mayhem, a few good quotes and the occasional directorial flourish, there’s very little in This Means War that works on a sustained basis. It’s the kind of Hollywood film that gives a bad name to Hollywood films, and the fact that they shot a film set in Los Angeles in Vancouver may be all that is required to be said.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) As a confirmed but not dogmatic Star Trek fan, I find this new movie-reboot-series interesting: It’s not quite the same Star Trek that established the reputation of the series, but it holds its own as an ongoing series of action-based SF adventures. This second entry builds on the first one in that it doesn’t really have to re-establish all of the characters, giving more time and freedom to tell a new story. That it’s pieced together from bits and pieces of other Trek miscellanea (I recognized at least three minor references to the original series, and I wasn’t paying that much attention) is a bit unfortunate, as it constantly invites comparisons that may not work to its favour. There certainly are a few problems with Into Darkness: As in the first film, the screenwriters clearly don’t understand anything about science or basic plausibility (A spaceship plunging into the sea? A major engagement in lunar orbit and no automated defense mechanism says boo?) and can’t be bothered to think twice about their universe-changing plot contrivances (Trans-warp? Resurrection serums?). This laziness keeps Into Darkness from being taken seriously as some of the finest recent examples of filmed SF: this isn’t 1983, and there’s a lot of good original SF on-screens to pick from. In order to compete, even a Star Trek reboot has to bring something to the table, and what Into Darkness has in spade is action: Director J.J. Abrams’ film is filled with high-end sequences mixing top-notch visuals with fast-paced tension and quite a bit fewer lens flares than the first film. The characters don’t hurt either, as it’s almost ridiculously entertaining to watch Chris Pine as the impulsive Kirk play off Zachary Quinto’s cool Spock. The rest of the crew also does well, proving the virtue of that particular cast selection back in 2009. This time, though, the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villainous super-man Khan makes for far better drama than the first film: Cumberbatch is delicious as an antagonist, and there’s enough tension for an entire film in seeing him work alongside the Enterprise crew for vastly different reasons. Despite the departure from Trek’s all-optimism canon, I’m not unhappy to see tensions within Starfleet used as primary plot devices: This reboot is setting a nice bar in terms of dramatic interest, and fractious inner politics are a good measure of this pseudo-realism. So it is that while it’s possible (and maybe even necessary) to nit-pick this film to shred, I’m not dissatisfied at all with the result. My biggest wish for the inevitable third entry, though, would be to move farther away from Trek canon: a contemporary action-driven film series isn’t the same as a low-budget sixties serial, and any attempts to keep the two tightly linked can only frustrate everyone.
(On-demand Video, March 2012) As far as premises go, this documentary keeps it simple: William Shatner goes around interviewing the five other people who have played a captain (as lead) in a Star Trek universe. While there’s a little bit of footage of Shatner being himself at a Star Trek convention, much of The Captains is a series of one-on-one conversations between very different actors. Shatner seems to be enjoying himself (he wrote and directed the film), as he adds another piece to his very public voyage of self-awareness regarding his most iconic role –you’d think that after a few books, and many self-referential appearances in Trek-related works, there would be nothing left to say, but there is thanks to his interviewees. Patrick Stewart is grace incarnate as a top-level actor who has accepted his place in Trek history, but it’s his regrets at the toll the acting life has taken on his personal relationship that ends up being his moment in this film, much as Kate Mulgrew’s extraordinary description of the rigors of a TV series lead over a single mom’s life that ends up being the film’s emotional highlight. Otherwise, well, Avery Brooks is one weird/cool cat as he riffs off jazz music and somber themes. There’s no denying that The Captains is for trekkers: While it’s kind of entertaining to see Shatner arm-wrestle with Chris Pine, the film remains a definite vanity project meant to develop the kind of meta-Shatneresque personae that Shatner has been enjoying for the past two decades. Even so, it’s remarkably entertaining for those who know a bit about the Star Trek universe: discussions between fellow professionals often are.
(On DVD, February 2011) One of the best things about Carriers is the way it wisely dispenses with the usual first act of most post-apocalyptic thrillers. As the film begins with public displays of bad driving and other asocial behaviour, the ultimate pandemic has already happened, leaving only a few scattered survivors fearing for their lives. While the tricks you in thinking that this is Chris Pine’s film due to a flashy performance, Carriers is really the story of someone else in their four-people group as they travel and see how badly society has deteriorated. There’s not much of a point to the film but a few disconnected adventures and a gradually decreasing list of characters: as another example of how nihilistic the post-apocalyptic genre can be, it’s hard to do better. Still, for such a low-profile horror thriller, Carriers is generally well-executed (some of the camera work is very good), and written with a few flourishes of interest: The misdirection in terms of protagonist is gradually revealed and (somewhat unusually for the zombies/infected genre) the film leaves behind more characters than it kills graphically. Heck, it’s probably the first time I have liked Piper Perabo in a film. While Carriers never becomes anything more than a disposable, redundant post-apocalyptic film, but it’s not too bad within the confines of that genre.
(In theaters, December 2010) Railroad nerds better steel themselves, because Tony Scott’s latest thriller is a feature-length paean to American rolling steel, from lovely shots of moving locomotives to numerous behind-the-scenes explanations of how this stuff actually works. While it’s true that Unstoppable eventually becomes a competently-executed action thriller, it’s the film’s unusual focus on railroad mechanics that fascinate until the action truly starts. Loosely adapted from a true story (Search “CSX 8888” for the details), Unstoppable is about a runaway train and what needs to be done in order to bring it to a stop without causing massive damage. Denzel Washington is as good as usual as a grizzled engineer, Rosario Dawson does well in a role requiring no sex-appeal whatsoever and Chris Pine (stuck with a stock blue-collar character) solidifies his moderate credentials as an action hero. Meanwhile, Tony Scott deploys but does not indulge in the kind of hyperactive style he’s been using for a decade: his shots of rolling trains can become a bit too frantic to be properly appreciated, but he’s able to keep his worst excesses under control. Fittingly for its subject matter, the action scenes have the physical heft of colliding metal, the CGI gracefully bowing to physical effects. Structurally, the narrative is a predictable succession of failed attempts until our heroes step in to save the day: it’s a bit of a bother when some plans are so obviously underdeveloped that we know they’re doomed from the get-go. The “adapted from real events” presumably doesn’t extend to a few scenes milked for maximum suspense. Unstoppable is not a particularly refined film, but it delivers on its promise, and the result is a fine replacement for Runaway Train as the film most people will consider to be the definitive railroad movie.
(On DVD, October 2009) There may not be anything complicated or new about Bottle Shock, but it’s hard to dislike a gentle comedy that meets most of its objectives and ends on an entirely pleasant note. The heavily dramatized story of a wine tasting that “shook the world” in recognizing that American wines could compete with French ones, Bottle Shock is perhaps most pleasant when it delves a little bit into the minutiae and passion of oenophiles, whether on the wine-making or wine-tasting side. I’m not a drinker, but I always appreciate representations of people who love their work and hobbies –and Bottle Shock treats both with a lot of respect. Otherwise, the film features an impressive number of B-list names: Alan Rickman is a hoot as an Englishmen twice-removed, while Chris Pine turns in a performance that makes his take on Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek seem inevitable. It helps that the surroundings are as charming as the characters or the comedic arc: The film opens on a number of terrific flyover shots of the Napa Valley that would seem computer-generated if they weren’t in a low-budget feature. Not all films have to push the envelope if they happen to strike viewers at the right angle, and Bottle Rocket handles a conventional narrative with a bit of competence. The few notes that sounds repeatedly false are the film’s nationalistic insistence (along with a bit of French-bashing) and an odd scene near the end where characters have an uncanny ability to peer into the future of a world where oenophiles can enjoys wines from all over the world. (This isn’t that kind of meta-comedy, so let’s leave the fourth wall intact, shall we?) There’s also a bizarre romantic interlude that’s good for a bit of jealousy and… not much else. (Although there’s a payoff of sorts in the deleted scenes.) As an underdog comedy promoting hard work and determination over inherited privilege, it’s about as predictable as you may think… but that’s a limited criticism when it’s not the kind of film meant to be dissected. Just watch the thing, don’t expect much and enjoy. The DVD features an audio commentary track that is as enjoyable as the film itself, plus a bland documentary on the making of the film and a promotional piece on Chateau Montelena that acts as an epilogue to the film.