(On DVD, January 2017) I won’t go so far as to say that time can forgive anything—including a wholly unnecessary invasion of a foreign country that ended up killing tens of thousands of people and upsetting the geopolitical balance of an entire region—but barely a week into the Trump administration, I’m far more receptive to a sympathetic portrait of George W. Bush. It took noted agitator Oliver Stone to do it as well, and he didn’t even wait until the end of Bush’s second term to release it. Watching W. ten years later, it’s remarkable how Stone seemed to have been on target even then. For all of the revelations of the past ten years, the events chronicled in W. (hopping in-between a quick biography of Bush’ life, intercut with crucial moments in the ramp up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq) still ring truthfully, with the personalities of the people involved being immediately recognizable. For those who overdosed on political commentary at the time (myself included), there’s a treat in reactivating those near-forgotten neural pathways and being able to recognize public figures merely from the actors playing them. (Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice—woo!) Their portrayal seem harsh but fair—and having Dick Cheney deliver an impromptu presentation on the harsh realities of strategic geopolitics is enough to make one wish for an evil genius rather than an incompetent salesman in the White House. (But I digress … or do I?) Suffice to say that W. may not exonerate Bush from what should weigh on his conscience, but it does humanize a president that was easy to caricature, even though some of the dad/son dynamics in-between Josh Brolin (a fine Bush Jr.) and James Cromwell (a very good Bush Sr.) seem overdone. All I know is that I ended up enjoying W. far more than I expected, and not all of it has to do with validating pointless hours obsessing over American politics.
(On-demand, August 2012) Sequels are almost expected to be markedly worse than the original, but even with lowered expectations, it’s remarkable how quickly Species 2 goes rancid. The original may not have been exceptional, but it had some basic competence on display. This isn’t the case here, and it’s exhausting to point at all the reasons why the film is so awful. Despite a few good ideas and an intriguing opening-up of the plot far beyond the original’s scope, Species 2 quickly shoots itself in the foot thanks to terrible writing, no control over tone, overuse of exploitation elements and little conceptual coherency. Perhaps the single funniest aspect of the film is seeing Michael Madsen and Mykelti Williamson play their roles as if they were in a comedy film: Madsen almost seems to be parodying his own role in the original (unlike Natasha Henstridge, who plays it straight) and their ham-fisted antics make for a strange counterpoint to the deadly-serious acting by James Cromwell and Justin Lazar as they try to work out father/son dramatic issues in a film that’s really more interested in sex and violence. The gore and nudity seem far more exploitative here than in the original, to little effect when the rest of the film is so uneven. Some interesting set design can’t compensate for flat direction, a repellent quasi-joking attitude toward serial sexual violence, and gag-inducing dialogue. Cataloguing Species 2’s plot-holes would require more effort than a film of this nature deserves, and that stands as a damning overall assessment. It’s easy to find more than a few recent straight-to-DVD movies that were better than this theatrical release.
(On DVD, February 2011) By the time a fourth installment in a comedy series rolls around as a TV movie, much of the magic is gone and so there isn’t a whole lot to say about Revenge of the Nerds IV: Nerds in Love other than it makes for a pale epilogue to an already low-flying series. Even the plot feels like “a very special episode”, as a long-running character gets married and hijinks ensue. Lazily opposing nonconformist heroes (who become less and less nerdy as time goes by) to straight-laced villains, Nerds in Love takes the cheap and easy way forward every time. The villains are bigger caricatures than before, the plotting is dumb to the point of insult and the film is so desperate for laughs that it ends up featuring a food fight and a birth scene in the middle of the usual antics surrounding movie weddings. Robert Carradine does his best to keep up the spirit of the previous film and, to his credit, actually anchors a cast (including a guest appearance by James Cromwell) that doesn’t completely ruin it: Nerds in Love may not be much of a film, but it’s endearing to those who have stuck with the series so far, and it keeps up the charming nerdiness that made the first film such a fond memory. The DVD contains a deleted scene but no special features of note.
(On DVD, February 2011) While it would be easy to dismiss this as a quick straight-to-video follow-up to a series that saw better days, there’s actually a mixed bag of tricks in this third entry in the Revenge of the Nerds series: As botched as the execution can be, there’s some interesting material in seeing nerds grow up, a new group arriving on the scene and the ambition of a film to feature a general strike for nerd’s rights. James Cromwell has another hilarious cameo appearance as an elderly nerd, which Robert Carradine has the focus thrust on himself as “a self-hating nerd”. The nerdiness of the characters is less often technical and more similar to a veiled point about minority rights. Sadly, it’s in the execution that Revenge of the Nerds 3 falls flat: None of the new nerds are as interesting as the senior generation; the production values of the film are limited and the quality of the writing just doesn’t support the premise: Everything is handled with a disgraceful lack of subtlety, especially the protagonist’s never-believable inner-conflict. This, like most third installments in comedy series, is really for the fans… but even they may be annoyed with the result. The DVD contains no special features of note.
(On DVD, February 2011) Considerably inferior sequel to 1984’s original Revenge of the Nerds, even though it’s quite a bit more assured in terms of budget and direction. This time, the action moves south to Florida for spring break, but the script becomes dumber in a hurry. If the first film was silly, this one is just stupid, and you can tell by the amount of time characters act like their own caricatures rather than real characters. None if it is meant to be taken seriously, but the laziness of the script is such that even lame gags (like a metal detector finding a buried… metal detector) look like genius among the rest. Much of the first half of the film is spent re-hashing the best moments of the first film, and while it’s fun to see Robert Carradine and friends laughing it up and James Cromwell return briefly as an unrepentant elder nerd, that’s not quite enough to make up for the rest of the picture. There is, at least, enough colourful mid-eighties fashion to look at whenever the rest of Revenge of the Nerds 2 fails. The DVD contains no special features of note.
(Second Viewing, On DVD, February 2011) The early-to-mid-eighties saw their share of college-set comedies, but few of them became part of popular culture. If Revenge of the Nerds is any exception, it’s probably because of its outright pro-nerd message: Nerds have the fortunate tendency to take over the world’s technical infrastructure, and so it’s no accident if the film would be fondly remembered during an era where the Internet has made intellectuals kind of admirable. (Nah, I kid: it’s all about the underdog, and everyone thinks they’re the underdog.) As a film, Revenge of the Nerds isn’t much to celebrate: everything about the production shows its age and low-budget origins and the direction is no better from countless other B-grade comedies. In terms of subject matter, however, the screenplay is clever enough to marry geekery with college debauchery and underdog plotting (sometimes coming a bit too close to trivializing the plight of other minorities): the result hasn’t aged well, but it has held up a lot better than other films of its era. There are even a few surprises in the casting, from John Goodman as a bullying coach, to James Cromwell as the protagonist Robert Carradine’s very-nerdy dad. Dramatically, the film falls a bit flat toward the end without a clear climax (the beginning of the third act seems tighter than its end), but with such an amiable film, who’s to nit-pick? Die-hard nerds may quibble at the questionable nerdiness of some of the members of Lambda Lambda Lambda (and their readiness to take up ordinary college antics), but that’s part of the film’s inclusiveness: Everybody’s a nerd now! The “Panty Raid Edition” DVD contains the kind of audio commentary track that reflects the good times the filmmakers had in making the film, as well as a few featurettes to reinforce the feeling. More amusingly, it also has a wretched sitcom pilot from the early nineties that shows everything that’s wrong with cheap scripted TV comedy.
(In theatres, September 2009) It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that the best movies make you think. But it’s a less-acknowledged universal truth that even bad movies can lead one to conclusions. In this case, Surrogates is the kind of hit-and-miss film that makes one think that film really isn’t the ideal medium for idea-driven Science Fiction. On a surface level, some things work well: Bruce Willis is his usual dependable self as a cop investigating unusual murders, Boston makes a great backdrop to the action, and director Jonathan Mostow has kept his eye for good action sequences and efficient storytelling –although, frankly, I would have liked longer cuts during the chase scenes. The idea of a future where “surrogates” effectively allow one to decouple body from mind is rich in thematic possibilities, and the film does investigate a few of them. If nothing else, Surrogates is a decent way to spend an hour and a half; at least it’s a bit more ambitious than most other movies at the theatre. Alas, that’s not saying much, and the credibility problems with the film start with the first few frames. In flagrant violation of market economics, human nature, bandwidth limitations and just plain logic, this is a film that depends on 98% of the (Boston? American? Human?) population relying on highly advanced and presumably expensive equipment just 14 years in the future. Never mind that some people don’t even have cell phone today: Surrogates rushes into the bad clichés of a Manichean monolithic society in which everyone has and enjoys a surrogate, except for the easily-dismissible hillbillies and weirdoes who apparently choose to live in technology-free reserves. Never mind that the world is usually a great deal more complex and that the kind of technological breakthrough that surrogates represents could lead to a world where the very concept of incarnation would be abandoned: Surrogates simplifies issues to the point where anyone with half a working brain will cringe at the way the film ignores possibilities and takes refuge in cheap movie mechanics. The ending is particularly frustrating, as it all boils down to “press this button to save a billion lives!!!” That a lot of those issues were present in Robert Vendetti’s script for the original underwhelming graphic novel isn’t much of an excuse when the film takes such liberties with the source material. (If anything, Surrogates owes more to the I, Robot film than the graphic novel, down to James Cromwell in near-identical roles) The contrast between Surrogates and thoughtful written SF is strong enough to make one suspect they’re barely in the same genre. (Compare and contrast with Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon for a particularly enlightening experience.)
(On TV, January 2000) A charming fairy tale about a farm, its animals and the human farmers. Though quite fun and always interesting to look at, it does lacks some “oomph”. The computer-animated animals are cute, but there are signs that the film doesn’t fully exploit its potential. Still, good fun.
(Second-through-fiftieth viewings, Toddler-watching, On DVD, June 2014) Sometimes, it takes a different perspective to appreciate a film at its true value, and so it is that toddler-watching Babe (that is; over and over again) with a curious two-and-a-half year old only underscores what a magnificent achievement this film is. We usually skip over the dark opening and the sheep death scene, but most of Babe is fit to be watched by very young kids, even if as nothing more than a pleasant montage of scenes with adorable animals. (Tell no one, but the scene in which Babe convinces a sheep to take her medicine proved to be of pedagogical value.) It’s upon the fifth or fifteenth viewing that you begin to realize how perfectly executed Babe is: As a representation of a bucolic family farm, it’s got charm beyond measure. James Cromwell is nothing short of an icon as a laconic farmer, and the near-silent climax is a thing of beauty. Babe him/herself is a hero worth cheering for, and the sheep are almost impossible cute (and I say that as someone who has worked with sheep.) George Miller’s hand in this film is mostly that of a producer/screenwriter (Chris Noonan directed the film), but you can recognize the success of his approach in the rewatchability of the film. Babe is sweet but just as much fun for adults than it is for young kids. Let go of any cynicism and enjoy.