(On Cable TV, April 2019) Some movies are far more interesting in retrospect than during their initial release. Maybe they feature filmmakers and actors who became big later; maybe they anticipated or helped create a cinematic movement; maybe they reflect their time so well that they become period pieces. And maybe sometimes all three, like Kalifornia. The marquee appeal of the film is obvious in hindsight—David Duchovny as a journalist travelling across the United while visiting serial killer shrines, offering a ride to a young couple played by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis who end up being serial killers themselves. While Lewis’s performance echoes the one in the following year’s Natural Born Killers, Pitt plays against type as a manifestation of pure id, uncouth and violent and absolutely fascinating to the protagonist. Kalifornia does feel very much of its time in content and presentation—the early 1990s were heavy on serial killers, and this film certainly tries for a meta-commentary on the trend. There’s probably a link between this film and the rise of the Tarantinoesque black comedy subgenre, built on a foundation of neo-noir plotting and stylish direction. The visual style here is very assured—director Dominic Sena makes his debut here, but he would later go on to direct two very stylish thrillers for Jerry Bruckheimer toward the end of the decade (and then two more rather ordinary films in 2009–2011, but that’s another review). Still, for all of the fancy camera moves and studied images appealing to pseudo-profundity, there isn’t a whole lot to the result beyond being yet another serial killer exploitation film—well shot but hollow. There’s no real understanding of the antagonist’s murderous motivation beyond simply being a cinematic psycho, and for all of the film’s superficial attempts at contemplation (such as the climax taking place on a deserted atomic test site), it doesn’t really lead to anything profound. The script fails to back up its own themes with anything beyond dull voiceover musings. Still, Kalifornia has aged better than many of its contemporaries—its enduring popularity is clearly linked to its lead actors, but it does remain a flavourful thriller with some visual style. It is more interesting than average … but not by much.
(On DVD, January 2017) I wasn’t expecting much from a medieval fantasy film starring almost-VOD-era Nicolas Cage, but it turns out that Season of the Witch, while formulaic and unambitious, does have a few redeeming moments. The generous-enough budget and the visual style of director Dominic Sena allow for a convincing recreation of plague-era Eastern Europe, while Cage and Ron Perlman each have the chance to shine as the main actors. (Cage even gets one of his patented overly dramatic speeches ranting against God itself.) Otherwise, well, the first half-hour is promising enough to create disappointment when it becomes obvious that the small group assembled in the first act is really there to be picked-off one by one in the following journey. We can gauge how close we are to the conclusion with counting the remaining characters, and the film’s two big third-act twists will be greeted as obvious by anyone paying even the slightest attention. It’s a fantasy film and generic one at that, but it’s not completely worthless. I don’t expect to remember much of Season of the Witch in a few weeks, but I haven’t wasted my time watching it. (Although, granted, I was washing dishes at the time.)
(In theatres, September 2009) Thrillers are often as much about setting than about plot, and so the best thing about Whiteout is how it really tries to take advantage of its Antarctic environment. It’s -50c outside on a white plain of ice, and the film occasionally does its best to give us all the claustrophobic, glacial, howling implications of that fact. (The rest of the time; not so much, as any Canadian will tell you: no dripping shoes, no chapped lips, no frost-burn on the cheeks) Unfortunately, there isn’t much more than that in store in this long-delayed B-grade thriller: The murder mystery is a bit of a bust, and the plot holes appear faster than the twists and turns. Culprits are obvious early on (otherwise, why spend so much time featuring bit players?) and the way to the ending is littered with curious narrative choices: Why drag on the film for another 5-10 minutes after the action climax? Why rely so heavily on coincidences, egregious oversights, dumb mistakes (such as, oh, not shooting someone coming at you with an axe?) and a generally linear plot? Everything even remotely interesting is usually told twice (including flashbacks) and the intriguing fog of the first few minutes is so thoroughly dispersed that it has us wishing for more mystery. (Can you believe four people wrote this?) Even the execution feels off: it all leads up to a snowy fight in which it’s tough enough to know who’s who –let alone what’s happening. Pretty Kate Beckinsale may have sold many/most of Whiteout’s tickets, but she’s miscast and overly made-up: an older, more world-weary heroine would have been far more believable. On the other hand, she’s not making any better impression than the film’s other actors. As for director Dominic Sena, he’s done both better and more ludicrous in his career (Swordfish, anyone?) and either qualities would have been welcome here: he should consider going back to action movies. As it is, Whiteout is just frozen in place, offering only a few meagre reasons to see it: people used to shoveling snow off their driveways every winter will have more thrills doing so.
(In theaters, June 2001) This hits the spot for anyone just looking for a mildly ambitious action film. Starts with a literal bang -a slow-motion explosion shot that will make you cheer in sadistic delight- that’s never fully equaled afterward. The rest of the film is far more ordinary, though there is a fun set-piece by the end featuring an airborne bus. Hugh Jackman and John Travolta do their best with the material they’re given, but it’s Halle Berry’s wonderful topless scene which makes us forget how underwritten her character is. Mix the deficient pacing of Gone In Sixty Seconds and the technological inaccuracy of Hackers and you end up with a pretty good idea of Swordfish‘s tone, down to the criminal underuse of Vinnie Jones by director Dominic Sena. The script is slightly better than most similar thrillers, with a few dangerous hints of intriguing potential. (There are significant flaws, though, including an expected but unexplainable “resurrection” and some annoying mysogynism.) The directing has its moments, but the gratuitously pretentious first scene is typical of Sena’s lack of confidence in his material. Note the R-rating, which gives to the film a slightly harder edge that’s not unpleasant at all. I liked it, but then again I’m a sucker for techno-thrillers, big explosions and topless scenes. Your mileage may vary.
(Second viewing, On DVD, May 2002) I’m a sucker for techno-thrillers, naked women and action set-pieces, so frankly it’s no surprise if Swordfish holds up well a second time given that it contains all of these three elements. The script will never get confused with a masterpiece, the pacing lags a lot in the middle portion and there are enough nagging logical annoyances to prevent unconditional admiration, but Swordfish delivers the goods and features at least three memorable action scenes. Its premise isn’t completely silly, tired or boring. Hugh Jackman and John Travolta successfully compete in the charisma department. Not enough good things can be said about Halley Berry’s assets. But when you try to cut away all the rationalization, Swordfish is simply a fun film. The DVD isn’t particularly spectacular, but it manages to show that the producers knew what they were doing. Interesting making-of material, an extended discussion of how the ending was re-shaped and an adequately interesting director’s commentary complete the package. Not bad!
(In theaters, August 2000) Not as bad as some critics may have thought initially; it’s first of all a car-lover’s film, and should prove to be a lot of fun for those people. Granted, the lack of car chases is puzzling in a film that’s designed around the concept of stealing cars, but the remainder of the film is interesting enough in a beer-can-entertainment type of fashion. Nicolas Cage is believable in a role close to his latest action-hero characters. Unfortunately, Giovanni Ribisi continues (after Boiler Room) to suck charisma out of all scenes in which he’s present. The soundtrack has its moment. There aren’t enough stunts. Director Dominic Sena mishandles a few opportunities. A typical Jerry Bruckheimer film, with all the good and bad that this entails.