(On Cable TV, June 2015) I don’t think anyone can claim that Secret Window is a great thriller, but it’s a pretty enjoyable one in its own ludicrous way and I’m sorry it took me more than a decade to see it for myself. What makes the film almost-instantly recognizable as adapted from a Stephen King story is its focus on elements dear to King’s body of work: the writer-protagonist, the emphasis on the process of writing, the bloody escalation of horror, the gruesome violence, the touch of meta-fiction… Misery may top the list of typical-King movies, but Secret Window comes close. Johnny Depp is enjoyable as the writer-protagonist: his relatively normal performance here seems even more remarkable now that he has settled in a post-Jack Sparrow rut of eccentric characters. Writer/director David Koepp knows how to keep things interesting, and the gradually deepening mystery of the film eventually gives way to full psychological and then physical horror as the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. While the ending may repeat a crucial few lines once too often, the coda is pitch-black enough to make a mark. It’s not a respectable film, it’s not even a memorable film, but Secret Window is more than good enough to be interesting.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) I quite enjoyed Mordecai, but I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s got a peculiar sense of humor: it’s far more ridiculous than funny, and that’s a tricky tone to appreciate. Johnny Depp stars with, once again, a consciously off-the-wall performance as an art dealer who gets embroiled in all sorts of shenanigans surrounding an infamous painting. (While he’s initially portrayed as incompetent, the film improves immeasurably when we get an idea of his true skills.) Gwyneth Paltrow, unexpectedly radiant, joins the fun as Lady Mortdecai, while Paul Betttany, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Goldblum also seem to be enjoying themselves in their respective roles. Of course, Mortdecai makes a few bold choices along the way, taking on a particular kind of humor than runs the risk of falling flat for those who aren’t perfectly attuned to what it’s trying to do. I, for what that’s worth, didn’t laugh much throughout Mortdecai, but I smiled a lot, and found myself looking forward to the next ridiculous scene or bit of snappy dialogue. Much of the humor is forced (the mustache gags are… special) but the silly tone itself is amusing, bringing to mind respectable references such as Wodehouse and less-respectable ones such as Hudson Hawk. Director David Koepp keeps things moving briskly (the place transitions are a work of beauty), and it doesn’t take much to be swept up with the infectious oddball charm. But, then again, keep in mind that I actually liked Hudson Hawk –don’t trust me if you don’t feel the same way.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are times during Premium Rush where it’s not clear whether we’re watching a straightforward action thriller, or a glorification of the New York bike courier subculture. But why can’t it be both? After all, it’s practically a given that if you want to write an easy story set in any subculture, you bring in money, violence, chases and corrupt cops. Here, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt easily buffers his credentials as a hot young actor equally capable of playing action hero as he is in delivering sometimes-awkward dialogue: he plays the best of the Manhattan couriers, soon involved way over his head as a hilariously intense Michael Shannon chases him down. It’s all slap-and-dash by-the-number plotting, but writer/director David Koepp keeps things moving at a satisfying pace through interludes zooming around New York, hopping back and forth in time as the glory and danger of being an NYC bike courier is graphically described. There’s some satisfying black comedy in the way our protagonist sees the world, and some meta-amusement once viewers understand the way the cycling set-pieces are lined up in a row: Here’s some Central Park racing, here’s stunting in a warehouse; here’s a hip reference to flash-mobbing… You’d think that 2012 was a bit late in the movie-making game to deliver such blunt material, but Premium Rush is that kind of film: no subtext, straightforward dialogue, convenient coincidences and half-hearted plot justifications. (Well, maybe not even half-hearted –No one ever thinks of using the subway in this movie.) Does it work? Sure, but only in the barest sense: It moves along, delivers the goods with a bit of visual flourish and Gordon-Lewitt manages to be not annoying in a generally annoying role. But that’s it: If you’re thinking about Premium Rush as being anything but a glossy Hollywood look into bike messenger subculture, it’s disappointing. The film doesn’t sustain a serious second-guessing of its assumptions, and relies on stock clichés far too often to be respectable. Simply put, it could have been quite a bit better –either as a thriller or as a look into the subculture.