(On TV, March 2017) A modern take on the Cinderella story seems like a sure-fire premise—how difficult would it be to screw up? But as A Cinderella Story proves, there are no certitudes in life, especially in movies. Landing with a thud even by teen-movie standards, this film can’t be bothered to care about the main elements of the Cinderella myth, limps along without much grace and frequently becomes irritating rather than entertaining. Hilary Duff isn’t bad as the heroine of the tale and Regina King does manage to get out of a meager role with her dignity mostly intact, but the rest of the cast can’t do much to save a lifeless script with little in terms of style, charm, wit or grace. Jennifer Coolidge is particularly ill-served as the wicked step-mother: despite doing her best, her character is actively unpleasant without the panache we’d associate with the best incarnations of wicked step-mothers. The male cast is largely forgettable—although Simon Helberg does make an impression for a few scenes. At a time when there are a few serviceable versions of the Cinderella story floating around (including 1997’s Everafter, which wasn’t that good and yet still better than this), I can’t imagine a situation in which A Cinderella Story would be preferred over any other version. It mishandles great material and ends up delivering an instantly forgettable result.
(On DVD, February 2017) At its most basic level, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans shouldn’t be much more than a crooked-cop thriller. You know the drill: bad cop uses gun, authority, aggression to get drugs, sex and money. We’ve seen this film before. But there’s a few things that make this Bad Lieutenant stand apart. First up would be using post-Katrina New Orleans as a backdrop, with signs of catastrophe still corrupting the scenery. Second would be giving the film to veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog, and allowing him to run wild with shots of wildlife, oneiric sequences and just whatever passes his fancy. Capable actors in supporting roles also help; Eva Mendes hits strong dramatic notes as the protagonist’s girlfriend, while Jennifer Coolidge gets a striking dramatic turn. Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Michael Shannon also all show up in minor roles. But Bad Lieutenant’s main asset remains Nicolas Cage, turning in a scenery-crunching performance as the unhinged titular cop, combining his dramatic chops with the grandiose operatic acting style he’s come famous for. Under Herzog’s direction and working from a decent script, Cage’s madness is harnessed to the needs of the film and seems even more remarkable as a result. (Witness the “His soul’s still dancing” sequence.) This is the kind of Cage performance that fans talk about when they celebrate his standing as an actor. I held off on seeing this film partially given my unfamiliarity about the original Bad Lieutenant, but it turns out that this is more a remake than a sequel, and it certainly stands alone. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans is a good example of how an actor with an oversize screen persona and a fearless director can elevate average material.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) Seemingly designed for maximum cuteness, Austeland plays with the tropes of romantic comedies as a lovelorn American heads to England to visit a Jane Austen-themed park, where she’ll spend a week in an idealized historical setting where romance is guaranteed. Of course, it becomes hard to distinguish between reality and fiction once the romances start piling up. Austenland benefits considerably from Keri Russell’s charm and Jennifer Coolidge’s over-the-top comic timing, but it’s the intertwining of romantic tropes and how they play out in the multiple realities of the theme park that really drive the plot and the interest of the film. Austenland certainly isn’t perfect: There’s something off in its low-budget staging (the park is definitely underwhelming once we get there: is there all it is to it?), lack of laughs in favour of knowing chuckles and ultimate adherence to rom-com clichés. Fortunately, romantic comedy clichés are such that they don’t leave much of a sour taste when they’re reinforced –Austenland isn’t entirely successful, but it’s partially successful in a genre that is very forgiving of imperfection. It’s a likable film, light and insubstantial but easy to watch and utterly sympathetic. Twilight haters may want to note abashedly that Stephenie Meyer co-produced the film and so helped make it come in existence.