(On Cable TV, January 2019) While Waiting to Exhale isn’t that significant a movie in film history, it still plays so often on cable that it wore me down. I gave up and finally recorded it, although not out of exasperation. My intentions in watching it were not noble at all: Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon, Loretta Devine and Angela Basset headlining the film? I’ll watch that. An episodic story focusing on four women’s attempt to find love in spite of bad partners, Waiting to Exhale also features the directorial debut of Forest Whitaker, who imbues the film with odd stylistic choices that, perhaps unfortunately, precisely date the movie to the mid-1990s. Still, the movie itself is quite a bit of fun to watch. Our heroines don’t take cheating and romantic disappointment very well: in the film’s most memorable sequence, one sets fire to her cheating husband’s car, his clothes inside. While the episodic nature of Waiting to Exhale means that it has high and low points, the acting talent brought together here remains notable. Angela Basset, in particular, is at her best here with a powerhouse performance. The all-black casting is so successful in that by the time a white woman shows up (as a romantic rival, no less) late in the movie, the effect is definitely jarring. Among the male cast, Dennis Haysbert and Wesley Snipes have good roles, but viewers should be forewarned that this is not a movie in which men get the most admirable characters—this is female empowerment, and much of Waiting to Exhale’s success can be found in how completely and solidly it makes viewers (even white men such as myself) identify with the four black women protagonists.
(Video on Demand, November 2015) With a few modifications, Southpaw would have made a splendid Rocky II: It begins with a boxer in the prime of his life, winning fights, enjoying his money, loving his wife and doting on his daughter. But it doesn’t take much for all of it to be taken away, and much of the film is spent going through this riches-to-rags story and then looking on as the protagonist digs himself out of the hole he’s fallen into. It’s a relatively familiar story (although the triggering incident twenty minutes in the film will surprise many who haven’t seen the trailer), but it’s generally well-executed enough. What really shines here is Jake Gyllenhall, physically pumped-up and ripped to a degree that may shock fans who aren’t used to seeing him in such peak condition: beyond the physique, he brings his usual intensity to a role far more aggressive than most of his previous performances and the result is often mesmerizing. (Compare him in Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler for an astonishing slice of filmography spanning just three years) Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams don’t exactly stretch themselves in supporting roles, but they each bring what they do best. Curtis “50 Cents” Jackson and Naomi Harris have all-too-brief minor roles, while Oona Laurence is remarkable in a tough child performance. Director Antoine Fuqua thankfully leaves some familiar tics behind in delivering Southpaw (it’s not quite a gratuitously violent nor as obsessed with police elements as many of his previous films, or instance) and he’s able to direct familiar boxing scenes with a good amount of power. It’s not quite a feel-good film (despite the triumphant ending, viewers will have to crawl along a lot of mud alongside its protagonist to get to the good parts) but it’s satisfying enough. Southpaw’s not meant to be subtle, but it lands its punches.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) One nearly every level, Freelancers is the quasi-definition of an average corrupt-cop drama. Teenage hoodlums-turned-cops spend their first few days on the job confronting racist and drug-using veterans, before turning the tables on a spectacularly corrupt ring of insiders. There’s little here that hasn’t been done elsewhere in much more compelling fashion. Still, Freelancers has a slightly different rhythm: it’s talky, generally restrained in its use of loud action sequences (although some of the more corrupt cops seem able to get away with literal murder without too many plot consequences.) and earns a few irony points by pitting Curtis “50 cents” Jackson (a rapper with a somewhat spectacular personal history going from teen-hoodlum to respected artist) against Robert de Niro, who can play corrupt cops while half-asleep and still run circles around his co-stars. (Forrest Whittaker also makes a bit of an impression as a seriously corrupt policeman who somehow still ends up a fairly good cop at times.) Freelancers has the advantage of being decent enough to be worth a look on a lazy evening, but it’s not exactly a classic in the making: Training Day and even far more pedestrian fare such as Brooklyn’s Finest have explored this territory far more satisfactorily before, making this film a bit redundant. For a non-American perspective, the film also seems to be taking place in a far more violent and degenerate alternate universe where police corruption is taken as endemic and false equivalencies between police and criminals are a given –in other words, a throwback to the seventies that feels a bit forced today. Fortunately, there is an audience for such tepid crime dramas as Freelancers: people who, like me, don’t mind yet another cop drama given the right circumstances and are always up to see which self-referential role Robert de Niro will now accept.
(On-demand, August 2012) Unaccountably, I had never seen Species until now, nearly seventeen years later. For some reason, I had filed away this title as a throwaway B-grade monster movie, not worth the trouble to seek out. But the future is now, and the film is only a few buttons away from on-demand viewing! While Species is, in fact, a B-grade monster movie, it’s a slickly-made one, with a few good ideas and some noteworthy elements. Take your pick of the various names featured in the credits: H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creature design (leading to a few “have I really seen this?” moments), a scene-setting performance by young Michelle Williams as a young alien on the run, Michael Madsen’s cocky turn as a special operative, Forrest Whittaker’s good take on a bad “empath” role, Ben Kingsley as a government operative, or Natasha Henstridge’s asset-baring first big-screen performance. In Science-Fiction terms, Species is borderline incoherent nonsense, but it springs from a fairly clever conceit of remote alien invasion via radio-signal DNA sequencing. (Other written-SF stories have tackled the idea, but it’s still relatively original for Movie-SF.) There are also a few nice things to say about the themes of the film, which combine a few rough ideas about predation and reproduction with more standard horror-film tropes. Plot-wise, the film remains a monster chase, but the team of monster-hunters is shown effectively, and the rhythm doesn’t really falter until the last act’s fairly standard subterranean heroics. Species’ dynamic night-time chase sequences show that the film had a decent budget, making the B-movie exploitation elements seem all the more noteworthy. While some of the film is still stuck in the mid-nineties, it hasn’t aged all that badly and rewards casual viewing even today.
(In theatres, March 2010) In a generous mood, I would probably praise Repo Men for its satiric vision of a future where synthetic organ transplants are common and expensive enough to warrant repo men going around repossessing deadbeats, leaving them, well, dead on the floor. I would congratulate Jude Law, Liev Schreiber and Forrest Whittaker for thankless roles playing unsympathetic characters and Alice Braga for something like a breakthrough role. I would say something clever about the film’s forthright carnographic nature. I may even have something affable to say about Eric Garcia, who sort-of-adapted his own novel for the screen (the story, as described in the book’s afterword, is far more complicated) and wrote one of the most bitterly depressing movie ending in recent memory. Heck, I would point out the numerous undisguised references to Toronto (where the movie was shot): the inverted TTC sign, the Eaton center complete with Indigo bookstore, the streetcars, even the traffic lights and suburban streets. But I am not in a generous mood, because Repo Men is an unpleasant and defective attempt at a satirical action SF film that fails at most of what it attempts. The characters are unlikable, their actions are despicable, the chuckles are faint and the Saw-inspired gory violence isn’t warranted by anything looking like thematic depth. It is a literally viscerally repulsive film, and even trying to play along the grim sardonic humour gets increasingly difficult to swallow during self-congratulatory action sequences. Once the film’s none-too-serious credentials are established, it’s hard to care –and that includes a wannabe-romantic sequence in which internal organs are exposed and fondled. The ending wants to be witty, but it just feels absurd before it is revealed to be cheaply cynical. The Science Fictional elements don’t even fit together and the result is a big bloody bore. Instead, just give me another shot of Repo: The Genetic Opera!: at least that film knew how to balance arch seriousness with a sense of camp. The irony is that Garcia’s novel is actually quite a bit better than the film –don’t let the adaptation scare you from a novel that does what the film wanted to do in a far more palatable fashion.