(On Cable TV, December 2018) There are so many terrible low-budget movies on Cable TV channels that it’s easy to question why I still take a chance on lesser-known titles without much of a profile or track record. Part of the answer may be with films like Made in Romania, a satirical take on making-of movies that details the production of a Victoria-era drama made … in Romania. Written and directed by Guy J. Louthan, it takes aim at the state of the movie industry circa 2010, and cranks up the madness to 80%. As a very English story is sent packing to Romania for hazy tax purposes, the problems start piling up when actors, directors, financiers and eventually gangsters all have their say. Made in Romania is not a particularly good movie, but it does have its charms—starting with a surprising number of recognizable cameos, from Jennifer Tilly and Jason Flemyng as the leads of the movie-in-the-movie, as well as Elizabeth Hurley and Danny Huston in smaller roles. The potshots at the industry spend more time on the producing aspects than other similar movies more focused on shooting (Louthan is best known as a producer), but some of the jokes are decent enough, and the increasing nightmare of the production is often well rendered within the confines of the faux-reality style of the film. It’s often unexpectedly funny, and it does get a few audible laughs despite some lulls along the way. Some freeze-frame gags and in-jokes help a bit. I can’t say that I’ll defend Made in Romania as a must-see, but I do have a bit of a liking for underseen underdogs, and so I’ll suggest it at least to those viewers with an interest in filmmaking satires.
(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.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) As the frontier between small theatrical and big direct-to-video releases keeps blurring, it’s not much a surprise to find out that decent thrillers can pass almost unnoticed in theaters before making a bigger splash in as on-demand releases. So it is that we have Stolen, a meat-and-potato thriller directed by veteran Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider, Expendables 2, etc) featuring the ever-unhinged Nicholas Cage popping up without much theatrical fanfare in 144 theaters across North America before arriving on home video. While Stolen isn’t a great movie, it’s handled with some screenwriting finesse, directing energy and acting skill when compared to a lot of other theatrical releases (such as the similarly-themed Taken 2). There isn’t much to the “genius bank robber is forced back into action after his daughter is kidnapped by an ex-partner” plot, but West’s direction keeps things moving, the script has unexpected moments of cleverness, the New Orleans backdrop is colorful enough (especially when you compare it to other films such as Deja Vu, 12 Rounds or even Hard Target) and the film doesn’t waste a lot of time. Sure, it’s ludicrously-plotted, with enough contrivances, coincidences and conveniences to fill a duffel bag. The dialogue isn’t stellar. The characters are barely sketched. But it’s not difficult to watch, and there’s a rough narrative drive to it all. Nicolas Cage gets a few moments of typical freaking-out, and it’s always enjoyable to see a solid actor like Danny Huston get a few moments to himself. The point being: Stolen is better than Taken 2, and as good as a few films with much wider releases. It’s an acceptable way to spend a quiet evening, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed.