(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m really not going to suggest that 1990’s Flatliners was a terrific movie, but a recent look at it suggested that it remained watchable thanks to slick cinematography and the presence of a group of actors who have since gone on to successful careers. While it’s far too early to say if Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton or Kiersey Clemons will break out (Ellen Page is already a known quantity, although not quite as indispensable as she was in 2010), I have a feeling that the 2017 remake will not age well. For one thing, it’s almost terrifyingly dull to viewers of the first movie—it keeps the inherent silliness of the original premise, but doesn’t really do anything interesting with the rest of its potential. The cinematography is flat (although some of the CGI-enhanced out-of-body sequences have flair), the themes are underdeveloped, the characters are dull and not much of the film makes sense if you approach it without the original—by the time the lead character unveils state of the art resurrection equipment in a basement, it’s clear that the film doesn’t make sense, and can’t bring any style to the proceedings. Including the original film’s Keifer Sutherland for a two-scene cameo actually undercuts the remake’s effectiveness by reminding us of the original while doing nothing to improve upon it—ah, let’s dream of an alternate take where Sutherland’s character, twenty-five years later, would seek to warn a new generation about the dangers of their experiment! The original idea was a great concept brought down with plotting silliness yet raised by execution quality. Alas, this remake is just dull. Among the actors, I have reasonable hopes that Diego Luna and Kiersey Clemons will go on to better things … but somehow, I doubt that future audiences will see 2017 Flatliners’ casting as a reason to see it.
(Netflix Streaming, June 2015) It’s an unconventional compliment to say that a film is intensely uncomfortable to watch, but then again Hard Candy is the kind of unconventional film that covets this reaction. A thriller almost taking place in a single location between two characters, Hard Candy pairs off a creepy photographer who may or may not have something to do with the death of a young girl, and a teenage vigilante with psychological terror on her mind. Castration is involved, so male viewers will spend much of the film with their legs crossed. A curious (and frustrating) lack of wide shots reinforces the hermetic claustrophobia of the film, which often feels like an intense ping-pong match between skilled players. Patrick Wilson makes a mark as the creepy photographer (fortunately, he has since had enough roles to avoid typecasting), but it’s Ellen Paige who earns almost all of the attention (despite a few too-showy moments) as a driven teenage avenger. Hard Candy is very effective and successful at meeting its goals, but viewers may be forgiven for thinking that the film is a bit too long, and finding out that there’s not really any character to feel sympathy for. Combined with the unsettling cinematography, Hard Candy thus remains a bit distant –which may not be a bad thing given the intensity of its thrills.
(In theaters, July 2010) It’s tough to review Christopher Nolan’s Inception without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but here goes: One of the finest SF movies in years (even so soon after Avatar and District 9), Inception cashes Nolan’s Dark Knight chips and goes on to deliver a masterful cinematic experience that combines big-budget entertainment, thematic depth, weighty characters and splendid action sequences. Good enough for you? While it’s not a perfect film (lengthy snow sequence, insufficient exploitation of dream logic, some weak actors/roles), Inception wipes the floor with other big-budget action films thanks to unusually ambitious goals, pitch-perfect sequences, savvy storytelling and multiple levels of understanding. It’s a measure of how successful it is that much of it appears simple, even obvious. But when the film starts with “it’s a dream within a dream” and works its way to five (maybe six) levels of overlapping reality without losing its audience, it’s hard not to be impressed. Ever since Memento (with high points at The Prestige and The Dark Knight), Nolan has proved himself to be an unusually skilled writer/director with a gift for infusing popular entertainment with weighty thematic consideration. So it is that Inception effortlessly touches upon dream logic, moviemaking shortcuts, personal grief, human mythmaking, memetic madness and subconscious sabotage without seeming to break a sweat, all the while delivering a heist film according to the well-worn conventions of the subgenre. Watching the film is like falling into a pleasant trance, emerging from the experience a lot like the characters coming back to reality. Subtle and not-so-subtle touches add to the experience, such as a deliriously effective shifting-gravity fight sequence, an iconic sequence in which Paris serves as an exposition background, and a frame-perfect last shot that will please both those who want a definitive ending and those who don’t. Brainier viewers will be pleased to watch a film that finally dares viewers to keep up. Science Fiction fans will be particularly satisfied to see a film that uses SF devices for their emotional power while delivering some good old-fashioned sense-of-wonder at interlocking realities. While the actors are a bit hit-and-miss (I’m still not convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio, nor by Ellen Page’s mushy-mouthed lack of affect, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the picture’s lead action hero), the real star is Nolan as screenwriter and director, because Inception is beautifully controlled from beginning to end, combining the precision of The Prestige with the non-linear storytelling of Memento and the action rhythm of The Dark Knight. Inception is, in a carefully chosen word, amazing, and a shoo-in for year’s end top-10 lists. Expect to see it more than once.