(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) Every six months comes another silly Adam Sandler movie. Even if Bedtime Stories falls under the Disney banner, the choice to target younger audiences doesn’t affect Sandler’s humour all that much: it’s still juvenile and broadly obvious. The high-concept premise here has to do with an underachieving janitor discovering that bedtime stories have real-world effects, and trying to take advantage of those for personal gain. Of course, the real plot has something to do with Sandler mugging for the cameras, first in fantasy sequences and then again in the film’s version of its real world. Some of it actually works, as silly and asinine it can be. At times, we’re left wondering what Guy Pearce did to deserve being stuck in a dumb movie like this; at other times, there are a few good jokes in trying to link fantasy with reality. Sandler himself has his own kind of charisma, even though Bedtime Stories often feels like a too-late attempt to recapture some of his earlier less mature roles, limited by rating from going in his typical angry man-child persona. It doesn’t amount to much, though, and kids will be served by plenty of other better movies.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) The usual trade-off when watching mediocre movies starring Nicolas Cage is that however dull the film can be, at least Cage will be there to indulge into one of his usual bout of theatrical overacting. Sadly, we get neither a good film nor a typically unhinged Cage in Seeking Justice, with results that feel far more disappointing that had it featured another lead actor. To be fair, the film offers an intriguing premise: A bookish husband is promised vengeance against the man who assaulted his wife in exchange for an unspecified favour sometime in the future. Six months later, the favour escalates all the way to murder, and our protagonist gets stuck between an eager police force and a mysterious conspiracy. So far so good: Seeking Justice is heavy on mysteries for its first half, and then just as heavy on chases in the second. But what’s missing is Cage’s usual persona: in his quest to play a different character, he seems to forget everything that makes Cage, well, Cage. In another context, it may have been forgivable (see his performance in The Frozen Ground, equally restrained as the thriller around him) but here it just feels like a waste as the rest of the film cries out for some wild acting to go along its preposterous premise. But it isn’t so, hence Seeking Justice ending up as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road thriller, the likes of which are quickly sent to the home video market these days. January Jones continues not to impress here as the protagonist’s wife –she doesn’t get asked for emotional range, and so doesn’t have to deliver. The power of wildness is more obvious with Guy Pearce, who gets to chew slightly more scenery as the shaved-head villain. (One starts to wonder if the fault isn’t to be addressed to director Roger Donaldson: was he screaming “more restraint!” on the set?) Thematically, there’s almost something interesting in the portrait of urban decay as pictured in New Orleans (Cage must feel like a honored guest given the number of films he has anchored there lately.) and four-decades-out-of-date criminal sociology. While Seeking Justice is competently-made enough to avoid most of the pitfalls of bad films, it doesn’t get to do much more than be a serviceable thriller, and that’s too bad.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as period crime-dramas go, Lawless offers a quasi-charming throwback to Prohibition-era booze bootleggers. Adapted from a docu-fictive novel written by descendants of the bootleggers (Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World) Lawless obviously takes the side of the hero bootleggers as they face off against the real criminals and the corrupt self-righteous representatives of the law. This is a romanced view of criminal activity, and while Lawless attempts something more than the usual crime drama, it doesn’t have the heft or scope required to produce a memorable result. Still, what’s on-screen isn’t too bad, especially when Lawless takes a few moments to indulge in its rural-Virginia setting. It helps that the cast is so impressive: between brother-outlaws played by Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf, an extended cameo by Gary Oldman, an evil turn from Guy Pearce and a love interest played by Jessica Chastain, Lawless has enough star-power to keep anyone interested. (Hardy’s portrayal of an almost-comically-gruff character is a standout, as is Pearce’s repellent antagonist.) Still, the film’s biggest asset is in its somewhat-sympathetic portrait of moonshine production. Our outlaw heroes aren’t sadistic or repellant: they use the minimal possible amount of violence as a tool to keep things tidy in the pursuit of an extra buck. Occasional moments of significant violence are almost expected for the genre, while lengthier lulls in the pacing sap away some of the film’s energy on the way to attempt a more ambitious kind of film. Lawless ends up falling between two chairs, never completely happy to stick to an entertaining crime drama, while never having quite what it takes to become a criminal epic for the ages. Lawless will have to settle for a good-enough film, probably more disposable than the filmmakers intended (what film isn’t?) but still reasonably entertaining in its own right.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) As far as haunted-house horror movies featuring young protagonists are concerned, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, 2010-remake edition, isn’t too bad: It’s got the creepy house, it’s got the malevolent creatures, it’s got the sympathetic young girl as a protagonist and it has a lot of atmosphere. The screenplay may be from Guillermo del Toro (who also produced the film) but don’t be fooled: while the result has a few similarities with del Toro’s already-classic Pan’s Labyrinth, it is markedly more ordinary and doesn’t really rise above the horror B-movie genre. Still, within these confines, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark does a few things right: Troy Nixey’s direction is fluid and creates a effective sense of space by moving through the sets. The actors turn in good performances: Bailee Madison is center stage as the young protagonist, but Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce do just fine as the adults renovating an old creepy house. The script is a bit too loosely-connected to be entirely satisfying, some sub-plots lead nowhere and the ending is a bit more heartless than expected, but the film itself has its good moments, especially if you focus on the cinematography. While Don’t be Afraid of the Dark won’t win awards or remain in memory longer than the next decent horror film, it’s not a bad way to spend a stormy Saturday evening.
(On-demand, September 2012) Perhaps the best thing about the digitalization of the filmmaking process has been to expand the scope of small cheap action movies. Add some CGI sequences and a lot of green-screen set extensions to a moderately clever script and suddenly it’s entirely possible to make an action film set aboard an orbital space station in 2079 for a reported 20-million-dollars budget. Lockout’s real asset, though, is the straightforward script: it’s all about action nonsense, and from the very first shot of the film onward, it never apologizes for what it tries to be. Sure, the idea of cryogenically keeping prisoners in a space station is economically ludicrous (albeit justified later on with a bit of Evil Intention). Sure, the idea of sending in a renegade agent to sort the mess is reminiscent of Escape from New York. Sure, the film’s science starts out idiotic and then sinks further in impossibility. But it’s hard to take it as anything more or deeper than a straight-up action thriller. As such, Lockout satisfies expectations: it’s not refined, subtle or even memorable, but it’s got a clever kick to it –but that’s about as much as we can expect from the Luc Besson script factory on good days. It helps a lot that it’s headed by Guy Pearce, temporarily abandoning his dramatic thespian ambitions to deliver a fully-muscled performance as a snarky anti-hero. It’s too bad that the script could have been just a touch better, or the action sequences just a bit more memorable. As such, we’re left with a moderately satisfying thriller: Lockout is exactly what can hit a sweet spot on a rainy day, but not something that people will quote as a reference months later.
(On DVD, August 2010) I realize that I’m fifteen years behind the rest of the world in (finally) seeing this charming Australian comedy, but then again you would be horrified at some of the other curious omissions in my personal film-viewing record. Suffice to say that hindsight has advantages of its own: It’s hard to see The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert now without spotting Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp in fearless performances that are remarkably different from the kind of roles for which they have become best known. (Go ahead; make a joke about Agent Smith in drag: “Mis-ter An-der-son, you look… fabulous”.) The film itself has aged remarkably well: While social attitudes toward queer issues represented in this film have hopefully evolved, the exuberant quality of the characters does a lot to bring audiences into their colourful reality. By the end, the film reaches a quasi-idyllic acceptance that acts as inspiration. But social issues aren’t the reason why the film has become such a self-confident camp classic: You just have to look at the astonishing visuals of a scene in which a bus drives across the desert featuring a rooftop performance by a drag queen draped in long billowing silver drapes to realize how awe-inspiring this film can be. The Australian outback makes for a spectacular background, and the script deftly moves between emotional tones without losing track of its goals. It’s all very impressive, and you don’t have to be interested in LGBT issues to appreciate the cinematography, the script or the fun of the bus ride.