(Netflix Streaming, September 2018) Five or ten years ago, I would have naively dismissed Battle for the Sexes’ lack of subtlety, its ham-fisted moral values and its obvious plotting. In resurrecting a 1973 TV spectacle pitting an older male player to a younger female one, the movie gleefully gets to recreate the social arguments of the time, not only discussing second-wave feminism (cleanly associating male chauvinism with grifting, laziness, and a bit of anti-Semitism) but also throwing in an LGBTQ feel-good bromide along the way. But looking at the resurgence of reactionary sentiment in (North-) American society in the past few years, I’m done with naïve cynicism—no amount of repeating the basics of human decency is enough and if that means going back to basics and calling a male chauvinist pig a male chauvinist pig, then so be it. It does help that Emma Stone is effortlessly charming at Billy Jean King, facing off a Steve Carrell who commits himself fully to the role of a sexist opportunist. The plot is familiar, the caricature of the antagonist is underlined twice to make sure we can’t possibly misunderstand the stakes, and the morals are obvious to anyone who doesn’t wear a red cap in their leisure time. Still, the period feel is convincing, the film does score a few comic highlights, Alan Cumming has one of his most Allan-Cummingest roles to date (complete with a “Hear that, 2017?” coda) and the entire thing is entertaining enough to watch. If Battle for the Sexes feels a bit too on-the-nose, then it may mean that there’s still work to do.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) I will always be receptive to a good old-school Hollywood musical, and La La Land does get started with a terrific freeway dance number that clearly sets the tone for what follows—a classic musical paying homage to Hollywood dreams without being bound to strict realism. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as star-crossed artists who struggle to achieve their personal vision. Charming and likable like golden-era Hollywood stars, Gosling and Stone couldn’t be more suited for their roles as eager upstarts. Still, the real star here is writer/director Damien Chazelle, orchestrating a big musical with enough modern sensibilities to feel both timeless and contemporary. The dusk musical number (the film’s second-best highlight following the freeway opening number) is spectacular enough that I could have sworn it had been shot in-studio and heavily post-processed, but it turns out it was actually captured on location in few takes. More daringly, the film not only goes for a bittersweet ending in which our characters don’t necessarily end up together—but also shows us an alternate montage depicting what would have happened otherwise. I’m impressed but not entirely satisfied by that choice, something that is also true for the rest of the film: for all the crowd-pleasing moments, there are also odd choices and obsessions elsewhere. I’m getting too old and jaded to be swayed much by idealistic appeals to artistic purity, so a chunk of La La Land’s thematic appeal feels a bit jejune. But it is a film about ideals, and musicals don’t do well with pure realism (hence my ambivalence about the ending), so let’s enjoy the colours and the bounciness and the Hollywood satire and the idea that we’ve got such a film to tide us over in dour bleak 2017.
(On DVD, October 2016) As a film, The House Bunny may work best as a showcase for Anna Faris’s comedic charm than anything else. Taking on campus sorority comedy via a disgraced playboy bunny forced to find a way for herself, this is a film that doesn’t aim too high and seems content with executing its own goals modestly. As it confronts beauty with authenticity, the script laboriously moves through synthesis, antithesis and synthesis is a measured fashion, most plot points perceptible long in advance. Despite the all-inclusive ending, there’s still something uncomfortable in the film’s first half, as playboy-centric beauty seems to be promoted as the ultimate goal. Fortunately, Faris is likable enough as the ditzy heroine to keep the film enjoyable no matter how far away it gets into its short-lived promotion of superficiality. The characters making up the underdog sorority rescued by the protagonist are fun (with particular props to Emma Stone in a pre-stardom role and Dana Goodman for boldly throwing herself in a hilarious character). The moral lessons of the film are deeply muddled (one suspects that giving a supporting role to Hugh Hefner himself is enough to blur whatever good intentions The House Bunny may have about an empowerment message) but the various laughs that the film gets, often through sheer mugging, are good enough to forgive many other transgressions. The House Bunny may be confused, but it is good-natured and, like its animal namesake, is cuddly enough to like despite its flaws.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every year brings its new low-key Woody Allen film, this one back to the meditative thriller à la Matchpoint. Here, a university professor bored by life find renewed purpose when he decides to kill a deserving stranger, and tries to get away with it despite growing suspicion by a student with whom he’s having a relationship. Directed without fuss and written to include copious amount of philosophical references (with a plot more or less adapted from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment), Irrational Man is the kind of adequate film that Allen has perfected over the years, amusing to watch and generous in allowing actors to inhabit their characters but oddly inconsequential once the credits roll and the story is neatly wrapped. The most noteworthy elements of the movie are the performances: Joaquin Phoenix is good as the anti-hero, while Emma Stone (in her second consecutive Allen film) is serviceable as a curious student. Irrational Man is fine without being exceptional, better than most direct-to-video thrillers while lacking the oomph of more successful criminal dramas.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Wait, what? Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Aloha? The rather competent filmmaker behind such films as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky somehow ended up putting together this grotesque mishmash of disparate story element forced together? Huh. The frustrating thing about Aloha is that it does feature some very strong elements: Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone are two highly charming performers and it’s maddening to see them struggle with a script that doesn’t serve any substance. There is a provocative idea in trying to match Hawaiian mythology with the hard-edged world of military space technology, except when neither element seem to play off each other. The film’s lackadaisical lack of plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in keeping with the setting) except when it flips out ten minutes before the end credits and then suddenly try to cram some artificially-urgent conflict with a deeply dumb resolution (“Let’s blast it with sound! IN SPACE!”) with no built-up stakes at all. It doesn’t help that, as adorable as Emma Stone can be, she is profoundly miscast in a role that should have gone to someone both older and more ethnically representative. (I’m thinking of Tia Carrere, but lesser-known actresses would have been just as good) There are some terrific scenes here and them (Specifically, I’m thinking about a pair of hilarious near-wordless scenes with John Krasinski), but the script goes all over the place with no discipline nor focus –I’m actually astonished that no one suggested a further rewrite to take better advantage of its strengths. It amounts to a frustrating mess –not a bad movie to watch on pure undemanding entertainment value, but one that fails to reach even modest success at delivering what it should have been capable of achieving. Cameron Crowe; what happened to you?
(On TV, July 2015) For all the flack that 2000-2010 Matthew McConaughey has received for his lengthy string of undemanding roles in romantic comedies, it’s easy enough to forget that he was really, really good at it. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is as good a showcase for him in that mode as any of the other films in that sub-genre. Here, A Christmas Carol crashes into rom-com conventions as McConaughey plays an unrepentant womanizer taught the error of his ways via three helpful ghosts on the eve of a wedding. As with many films trying to mix familiar genre premises with high-concept premises, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past works best as its wildest (the scene where the protagonist meets his past girlfriends “in bulk” is the highlight), and worst when it’s saddled with obligatory emotional beats, or realise it actually has to deliver a romantic payoff beyond the jokes. So it is that the film is an inventive delight when McConaughey acts as a bad-boy or when the ghosts take him through a tour of his romantic life. It’s not so enjoyable when it has to go through the motions of the typical foreordained romance, or the dramatic scaffolding required to get to the triumphant ending. But the film does make an impression: Emma Stone is nothing short of hilarious in a pre-stardom role, while Michael Douglas is slick-smooth as the kind of mentor every mother warns her son about. Noureen DeWulf, Anne Archer, Lacey Chabert and Robert Forster also make good impressions in smaller roles. Still, the script is a bit hit-and-miss as its better moments are saddled with more obvious ones. In other words, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been a bit better with the elements at its disposal, and occasional signs that it’s capable of much better. But even as it is, it’s an impressive showcase for the kind of persona that Matthew McConaughey enjoyed in his rom-com heyday.
(On DVD, February 2015) Dreamworks Animation has always been a bit of a hit-and-miss studio: some of their films are remarkable, while others are instantly forgettable. The Croods falls somewhere in the middle, its uneven humor bolstered by inspired moments of lunacy but dragged on by an over-eagerness to stuff sentimentalism in a film that doesn’t need it. As a premise, the idea of following a prehistoric family as their learn modernity and escape a continent crumbling into pieces isn’t too bad: the anachronisms are part of the fun, and the setting offers a lot of colorful possibilities. Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone deliver standout vocal performances, but it’s really the animation that’s worth seeing, with fantastical creatures and dynamic camera moves working to deliver something interesting. Some sequences work well, usually when the film stops worrying so much about sentiments and an overused plot structure: The Croods is best in absurdist humor and fast-paced montages. It’s when it keeps harping on its basic themes that the film slows down to a crawl and gets annoying. Still, the film does have themes and emotions, which is more than could be said of other films in the Dreamworks Animation filmography. The Croods is watchable enough, and works even better as a family film.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) The biggest problem with the 2012 reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was that it was hard to justify its existence barely a decade after its inspiration. This sequel doesn’t have as much to do in order to justify its existence: We’ve been reintroduced to Peter Parker and now we get to look at how his story develops in a different direction. Andrew Garfield is still quite likable as the superhero in disguise, whereas Emma Stone also still coasts on her charm to sell an under-written character. The action sequences certain shows how progresses in special effects can allow filmmakers to present even bigger and better visuals on-screen: the opening chase sequence, taking place at breakneck speed in a brightly lit New York City, is a small marvel of super-powered heroics that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. While the return of the Green Goblin as an antagonist feels safe and conventional, the use of Electro is a little bit more interesting. This film, of course, has to do what the previous trilogy didn’t want to in showcasing a traumatic moment in Spider-Man history and while it’s difficult not to applaud this difficult dramatic choice, it’s also one that is blatantly foreshadowed in almost everything that happens prior to it. You can almost count down the seconds before it happens. Does this in any way justify the film? Sure, but not too much: we could have gone without it, and (BREAKING GEEKY NEWS!) the announcement that the next few Spider-Man films, to be developed with Marvel Studios, will ignore this misguided reboot don’t do much to justify those instantly-disposable films. Director Marc Webb should be doing other better things with his time anyway. But such is the age of the mega-buster nowadays: full of wonders, empty of meaning and so scrapped and forgotten a year later.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) There’s something almost awe-inspiring in the ways Movie 43 is determined to be such a bad and unpleasant film. A collection of sketch comedy skits meant to be as offensive as possible, Movie 43 has the unusual merit of featuring two dozen A-list actors, each appearing on-screen for only a few minutes. Sadly, they don’t have anything to work with: the sketches are uninspired, the pacing is off, the subject matter more puzzling than amusing, and there are no directorial flourishes strong enough to offset the abysmal quality of the script. It feels like a big dare: Even by the low standards of sketch comedy films, Movie 43 doesn’t manage to come anywhere close to laughs. The only segment of the film I’d rescue from a burning warehouse would probably be “Veronica”, the sort-of-romantic back-and-forth between Emma Stone and Kieran Culkin, and it’s largely because it feels comparatively better than the rest –not because it’s any good. Movie 43 sounds like one of those annoying kids who discover big swearwords and then spend the rest of the week repeating them, not realizing that the rest of us have moved one –it feels like a decade-old relic of the gross-out comedy wave, and is about as impressive as a deflated fart cushion. (I briefly considered the possibility that I’d lost my sense of juvenile humor, but then I watched the equally-crass horror spoof A Haunted House and chuckled like an idiot throughout.) Let’s not mention the actors involved in this debacle: I assume they were paid well for a short shoot and let’s celebrate the fact that Movie 43 died a quick and unlamented death at the box-office, landing on Cable TV about as quickly as it could.
(Video on-Demand, April 2013) There’s a fine line between parody, homage and unimaginative filmmaking, and it’s unfortunate that Gangster Squad seems to straddle all three at various times. I’m certainly not objecting to the idea of a muscular crime thriller set in post-war Los Angeles: cops-versus-mob movies are the bread-and-butter of the crime-thriller genre, and a director as gifted as Ruben Fleischer should have done wonders with the concept, especially given a an ensemble cast of talented actors. At times, Gangster Squad is exactly what it should be: a broad straight-up action movie where brash cops slap down the burgeoning L.A. mob scene. Car chases, fist-fights, explosions and gunfights: No problem. Unfortunately, Gangster Squad ends up feeling a bit too naive even for its intended goal: the tone isn’t controlled, the plot strands are both tired and used without refinements, the dialogues are weak and even the capable actors can’t do much with what they’re given. The worst example of this is probably the romantic sub-plot between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling: both are good actors with great chemistry, but they’re not given anything interesting to do together. Historically inaccurate to a degree that can be divined even by the most unobservant of viewers, Gangster Squad should be an old-fashioned thriller à la L.A. Confidential, but ends up a barely-competent photocopy of better works. The historical re-creation, decent actors and overall potential can’t make up for the wasted opportunities.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) Here is the key to this film’s seemingly-pointless existence: A long time ago, before it took ownership of its characters’ movies rights (a process that eventually led to The Avengers), Marvel sold the rights to the Spider-Man character to Fox studios, with a clause saying that movies about the character had to be produced every few years, otherwise the rights would revert to Marvel. Combine that with the fact that the original cast members of the Spider-Man trilogy have all gone out of contract and into a much higher income profile and you get a perfect excuse for a reboot, whether you like the idea or not. Ten years is a long time when it comes to the teenage audiences at which the Spider-Man films are aimed. So it is that The Amazing Spider-Man is nearly a plot-beat-per-plot-beat rethread of 2002’s Spider-Man. You’d think that modern audiences, familiarized with superheroes through fifteen years’ worth of such films, could be spared another origins story… but no. Still, a reboot may be a disappointment, but it’s not necessarily a substantial knock against the finished film: it’s all about the execution, and a deft take on familiar ideas can outshine plodding originality most of the time. Sadly, the biggest problem with The Amazing Spider-Man is that it can’t be trusted to present a satisfying version of the Spider-Man mythology. It doesn’t do much with the expected elements of the Spider-Man origins story, and by strongly suggesting that non-nerdy Peter Parker is meant to become Spider-Man, it seriously undermines one of the charms of the everyman character. This, added to evidence of late tampering with the script (as in: the trailers show more than what’s in the finished film) and the obvious non-resolution of enough plot-lines to point the way to a film trilogy, make The Amazing Spider-Man such a disappointing experience. Oh, it’s not as if the film is worthless: The two lead actors are better than the previous trilogy’s lead actors even when they’re not given equally-good material (poor Emma Stone doesn’t have much to do than show off her knees), director Marc Webb has a good eye and the wall-to-wall special effects show how much the industry has improved in ten years. This Spider-Man has better quips (one of the characteristics that establish him as a distinct alter-ego from Peter Parker), Rhys Ifans is intriguing as the mad-scientist villain and the film is slickly-made. Still, from a storytelling standpoint, it seems as if all the worst choices were made in the service of a mechanically-conceived piece of pop-culture merchandizing. It’s entertaining enough, but it could have been so much better…
(On Cable TV, March 2013) There’s a small stroke of genius in the way The Help takes a big social issue such as culturally-ingrained racism and looks at it from a very domestic perspective. Isn’t it a very real human tragedy to think that poor black mothers spent more time raising privileged white children than their own kids, helping perpetuate the established order? Doesn’t it drive the point home more effectively than broad social demonstrations? Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard simply repulsive as the evil-in-a-sundress homemaker who considers “the help” as nothing more than disposable property? The Help is noteworthy in that it’s a female-driven film that managed to break the box-office: a welcome change of pace from the usual bang-bang entertainment that drives summer blockbuster crowds. A large part of this success has to be attributed to the way the film genially approaches its subject: Nearly all of the lead cast is female, and makes no apologies in the way it presents itself as a southern dramatic comedy of manners. While the film may earn a few knocks for presenting racism from a white perspective (as in: “Here’s the white girl to help those poor black people tell their story of woe”), there’s no doubt that outspoken matrons Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earn the spotlight away from southern belles Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain. While younger male viewers may not appreciate the kind of storytelling that The Help is built on, it’s easy to see that the film is effective at what it does, and that the emotional weight of the film goes beyond its older and wiser target audience. As a result, The Help manages some serious cross-over impact, charming even audiences outside its marketing category. It’s sweet without being too cloying, and it’s got a few memorable stories in its bag of folk tales. It’s surprisingly effective at discussing the emotional side of child-rearing, and wrings some real emotion from its premise. The soundtrack is occasionally terrific, and the sense of southern culture (tempered by the real recognition of its racist enablement) is spectacular. It’s well worth a look, even for viewers who may not feel as if they material calls to them.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
(In theaters, September 2010) I have a big soft spot for clever bubbly teen comedies, and those aren’t as frequent as you may think. Never mind how long it’s been since Clueless, Bring it On or Mean Girls: Easy A is now here to make us believe again in the power of a good script, decent direction and capable actors having fun in redeeming a high-school setting. Paying explicit homage both to classic works of literature and to John Hugues’ work, Easy A’s starts out with a witty and literate script, but it’s the actors that really bring it to life: Emma Stone is immediately compelling as the picture’s lead character, a sassy/cynical/smart teenage girl who takes on lying about carnal trysts as a path to social success. Around her, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci shine as an endearing mature couple who can’t stop trading sarcastic barbs: the rapid-fire delivery of their lines is one of the film’s sustained pleasures, and it show how confident Easy A can be in unloading its polysyllabic dialogue. There’s a lot of really funny material in here that doesn’t call attention to itself, and that will reward viewers with enough attention to keep up. Director Will Gluck showcases the script with zippy direction, but his technique wisely keeps the focus on the actors. While the film has a bit of a third-act problem in trying to bring everything together (the real-life answer would be “nobody will care as soon as you graduate”), the rich writing more than makes up for whatever longer moments can be found on the way to its conclusion. This is one teen film that everyone has a decent chance to enjoy.