(On Cable TV, November 2017) There are at least two movies in A Cure for Wellness: The first is terrific, and it shows an impressive blending of modern concerns and gothic horror, as a young corporate executive goes to a secluded health retreat in Switzerland where old secrets accumulate in a deliciously over-the-top fashion. It’s the set-up half of the film and it gets increasingly engaging, what with writer/director Gore Verbinski delivering top-notch atmosphere. It’s a frequently beautiful film to gawk at, and there is a precision to the images that confirms his intent to crank up the tension. Seasoned viewers are liable to love it all, especially as known horror signifiers are used to good extent. Sadly, jaded viewers also suspect what comes next: a far less interesting second half in which some mysteries are explained, many are ignored (or dismissed as good-old hallucinations) and the film keeps going well past the two-hour mark. While A Cure for Wellness is narratively conventional, the third act is stuck trying to make sense of the entire film, and doesn’t quite rise up to the challenge. The coda is particularly disappointing, leaving far too many things up in the air. Other inconsistencies annoy. Dane DeHaan is perfectly suited for the unlikable anti-hero of the first half of the film, but he can’t quite make himself or his character sympathetic enough in the second half. Jason Isaacs is fine as the antagonist, but Mia Goth is generally dull as the heroine. Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography remains exceptional throughout, but Justin Haythe’s screenplay is simply a framework. It’s a shame that the film isn’t edited more tightly—there are not reasons why it should be as long as it is, especially given the straightforward script. Still, there’s a lot to like in the film’s best moments, whether it’s an announced nightmarish visit to the dentist, a claustrophobic visit in a water tank, or various bits of body horror and hallucinations. I was reminded of Crimson Peak in that this is a simple gothic horror story told lavishly—except that Guillermo del Toro knows how to layer depths and ensure that the details are consistent, neither of which are particularly solid in this case. A Cure for Wellness does get a marginal recommendation, but mostly for its first half and mostly for horror fans—it doesn’t quite manage to go farther than that for other audiences.
(In French, On DVD, April 2016) There’s been a glut of kids movies with CGI animal characters lately, but an early (and enjoyable) prototype of the form can be found in 1997’s Mousehunt, in which an exceptionally intelligent mouse goes to war against two brothers trying to renovate an old house. While the film does feature a handful of CGI creatures (usually easy to spot), most of the mouse scenes are shot using real trained mice, and the result, in all of its limitations, is surprisingly enjoyable. It helps that Mousehunt features some real good physical comedy, and earns a number of honest laughs along the way. Nathan Lane and Lee Evans are fine as the brothers battling against insolvency and a smarter-than-they-are mouse, but Christopher Walken has a very good small role as an exterminator who finds his match. Still, the star here is director Gore Verbinski’s efforts at orchestrating mayhem as the war between the mouse and the humans escalates to pure chaos. There’s quite a bit of wit to the way the film is put together, balancing entertainment with a darker-than-necessary tone. Much of the film can be seen coming in advance, but there are enough small surprises here and there to keep things interesting and funny. For some reason, Mousehunt doesn’t seem to have endured all that well twenty years later, which is a shame given how it combines humour, action and small furry creatures appealing to kids, while having just enough cleverness and suspense to appeal to adults. (One note, though: the opening cockroach scene is disturbing to young kids. Heed the PG rating, especially given the small much-darker hints in the dialogue.) It’s quite a bit better than you’d expect … or possibly remember.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) From afar, the premise of The Weather Man seems like the most generic drama possible: A middle-aged man has an existential crisis as he applies for a new job, realizes that he will never reunite with his ex-wife, has trouble relating to his kids and faces the imminent death of his father. The list of movies and novels covering more or less the same idea seems infinite. But what about the execution? This is where The Weather Man shines, because from the first few moments, the film is a sardonic, more-interesting-than-expected take on a familiar subject: Nicolas Cage distinguishes himself as the protagonist, and this despite not overusing the over-acting tricks he’s best known for. The script is relatively witty (the repeated motif of food being thrown at the protagonist becomes funnier and funnier), Gore Verbinski’s direction is assured and the film manages (not flawlessly) to navigate a tricky path between dark comedy and straight-up drama. It works, although I suspect that as I age I’m getting more and more sympathetic to mid-life-crisis movies. Regardless, I was surprised by The Weather Man and liked it rather more than I thought I would. Chalk one up for execution over premise, and Cage’s unpredictability in the roles he picks.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) On paper, it’s clear that The Lone Ranger tries to replicate the surprise success of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy: Same star (Johnny Depp), producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and director (Gore Verbinski), along with two screenwriters (the Elliott/Rossio duo) and the hundred-plus other crew that the movies share. Once again, we go back in time for thrilling adventures, lavish action sequences, more than two hours’ worth of stuff and an off-kilter supporting character played by Johnny Depp that ends up overshadowing the so-called protagonist. It’s very familiar, and it’s partly why The Lone Ranger feels like such a slight disappointment. There is, for one thing, a bit too much of everything: The 149-minutes running time feels more bloated than generous, with numerous side-stories that don’t do anything to further a focused plot. Even the fantastic action scenes, as detail-oriented as they are conceived, can’t escape a certain lassitude past their halfway mark. I can’t help but blame Verbinski for a failure to tighten up the film and even up the tone: The Lone Ranger often loses itself momentarily in side-scenes that don’t bring much, indulges in a far grimmer tone than expected (gee… Eating a heart? Genocide twice?) and the framing device isn’t good for much more than a few unreliable-narrator gags. While Depp does fine as Tonto, his character’s eccentricities seem more studied than fascinating, and by the time his Big Trauma is explained, viewers may be tempted to shrug and motion for the film to move along. This being said, there is something grand and wonderful about truly-big-budget filmmaking: It seems as if every penny has been spent on-screen, with careful period recreations even in the most fleeting scenes, to say nothing of the extravagant craft with which the action sequences have been put together. The two train action sequence that bookend the film are worth seeing for anyone who appreciates the kind of big action beats that only hundred of SFX technicians can deliver. While the film isn’t particularly good, it’s nowhere near a disaster, and it’s sad that Armie Hammer’s career may suffer from the film’s lack of financial success: he’s likable enough in the lead role, and anyone who maintains that this among the year’s worst clearly hasn’t seen enough films yet. The Lone Ranger has plenty of visual delights, even if it could have benefitted from a few judicious trims at the screenplay level.