(On TV, February 2019) I’m an enthusiastic and forgiving audience for stories about writers, so it was natural that I’d eventually gravitate to The Rewrite even years after its release. Focused on a washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who takes a teacher’s job in a northeastern university, The Rewrite is, at its best, an entertaining trifle of a comedy/drama with a few pointed jokes at Hollywood, academia and those who make “being a writer” too big a part of their identity. It’s actually the kind of story that begs to be a novel more than a movie, but I’m not about to complain given that it features the ever-likable Hugh Grant in the main role, and my perennial movie-crush Marisa Tomei. A strong supporting cast (J. K. Simmons! Bella Heathcote in a substantial role! Allison Janney!) helps the film get rolling and remain likable throughout. (Well, likable despite the unlikable character played by likable Hugh Grant. It’s that kind of film.) The plot itself is serviceably in thrall to the usual rom-com tropes, albeit with a bit of a harder edge than usual in terms of character growth. The clash of culture between Hollywood and Academia is amusing in its own right, and it feels as if the lead character does earn his happy ending along the way. The Rewrite is nowhere near an essential movie, but it’s likable enough to be worth a look for anyone interested in its lead actors or subject matter. I had a good-enough time watching it.
(On Cable TV, August 2018) If, while watching The Snowman, you find that the plot makes no sense, then don’t worry about whether you’re having a stroke—rest easy knowing that according to the film’s director, its troubled production meant that a good chunk of the script was never shot. The film, as released, was cobbled together from incomplete material. How that happens (if that’s what happened) is a fascinating question as of yet unanswered, which is somewhat amazing considering the impressive pedigree of the cast and crew. And yet no one, not director Tomas Alfredson, not Michael Fassbender, not Charlotte Gainsbourg, not J. K. Simmons, not Toby Jones, not pretty Swedish landscapes can actually make the film any good. Not that missing narrative pieces are the film’s sole or biggest problems: Even the best production schedule still would have led to a silly and implausible film in which yet another serial killer gets off on making snowmen after killing his victims. (Actually, as a Canadian with substantial snowman-building experience, I’m somewhat dumbfounded by the whole snowman-after-killing shtick—snowman weather is very specific, and it only happens a few days per year, unpredictably linked to the weather. Any budding serial psycho building his killing schedule around near-zero-degree snowstorms would face near-impossible logistical challenges.) The Snowman gets worse the deeper you go in its details and subplots, as many of them don’t get any kind of resolution … and at some point you have to confront Val Kilmer’s terrible, overdubbed performance. Interestingly enough, the film’s botched handling of now familiar but still overdone thriller elements lay bare the ludicrousness of modern written thrillers, as they endlessly remix the whole troubled-detective, crazy-killer, sordid-society elements. It takes a ham-fisted interpretation of the formula to make us realize how stupid the whole thing has become. On the upside, The Snowman was such a derided failure (both commercial and critical) that we will be spared any further entries in the series.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) It’s too easy to point out that after Sole Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, this is Peter Berg’s third Mark Wahlberg-starring movie in a row tackling recent events in American history. It’s true, and kind of amusing, and so what? It does help that for all of its right-leaning American-uber-alles posturing and warm-headed rewriting of history toward a common safe consensus, Patriots Day is really well made and has its share of strong moments. It is about, obviously, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, concatenating events of a particularly tense week into a coherent storyline spearheaded by Wahlberg’s composite character. (It’s a bit much to ask for him to be there at every significant event in the chronology, but once you accept that conceit the film becomes easier to enjoy.) As you may expect, there’s a strong “you messed with the wrong city” attitude in the final results, which can be inspiring considering that it doesn’t mutate into jingoism or xenophobia. The film is, by most accounts, remarkably accurate once you forgive the lead composite characters, which makes some late sequences appear even more amazing, such as the western-style shootout set in suburban Watertown. J. K. Simmons doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but he makes every single one of them count. The same goes for Khandi Alexander, a favourite of mine who gets a terrific one-scene presence as a canny interrogator. Downplaying Wahlberg’s there-at-every-moment role, perhaps the most stirring element of Patriots Day is seeing a city, a system, an attitude rally behind a common violent intrusion and dealing with it adequately. (And I say this with incredible fondness for Boston, the American city I’ve visited more often than all others.) The crisis response is reasonable, effective and free of petty rivalries. But beyond re-creating the event more faithfully than most Hollywood movies, Patriots Day also benefits from solid filmmaking—while it’s by no means an action movie, it has a few suspenseful sequences and manages to re-create an intensely surreal period (such as seeing all of Boston empty for a few days) with some skill. Patriots Day can’t escape justified accusations of taking place too soon after the events, but I suspect that its appreciation will grow over time as one of the few early takes that wouldn’t necessarily have been better had it been completed later.
(In theatres, September 2009) This risqué yet generally amiable comedy by Mike Judge has little of the cubicle universality of Office Space of the striking conceptual strength of Idiocy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit its appeal and give it little memetic traction. In less pretentious terms, Extract is easily forgettable even if it’s not unpleasant to watch. A good chunk of this appeal rests on the shoulders of the capable cast headlining the ensemble comedy. The lead character of the piece, a harried chemist turned businessman now hitting a mid-life crisis pretty hard, wouldn’t be half as sympathetic if he wasn’t played with the good-boy charm of Jason Bateman. Gene Simmons pops up as an intense ambulance-chasing lawyer, whereas J.K. Simmons is a bit wasted as a voice of reason in the middle of so much low-key craziness. Extract’s plot scatters in multiple directions, with a number of small twists when characters don’t behave as they usually do in other comedies. If the actual execution of the plot is hit-and-miss, Judge’s portrait of American working-class banality is just off-the-wall enough to keep viewers interested. Time will tell if the film ends up producing as many catchphrases as the writer/director’s previous efforts, but a first glance suggests that this won’t be the case. On the other hand, Extract does manage to hits its own targets consistently, and if a little more ambition (or class awareness) wouldn’t have hurt, at least there’s something to be said for decent entertainment.