(On TV, September 2017) There are a few reasons to go back to Say Anything … and they’re not strictly limited to this being one of John Cusack’s first big role, or that this is Cameron Crowe’s first movie as a writer/director. Even today, Say Anything does have an off-beat quality that distinguishes it from so many other teen romance movies. Most of the characters defy easy characterizations (indeed, one of the film’s strengths is in undermining the stereotypes it starts with, all the way to an incarceration that feels wildly daring for a movie of this type), the dialogues are witty and the conclusion ends, as it is, in mid-air without being unsatisfying. Cusack’s charm is apparent even at a young age, while Ione Skye distinguishes herself as a teenage heroine and John Mahoney handles a difficult role fairly well. Surprisingly enough, the iconic boombox moment is a fleeting scene without much pomp associated with it. Decently comparable to the slew of John Hughes high school romantic comedies, Say Anything may not be a perfect examples of the form, but it’s readily watchable even today, and it still feels somewhat more sophisticated than many of its contemporaries.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) By now, fictionalized music biographies have settled into such a rote pattern that any deviation from the form is liable to make the result look better. Love & Mercy is certainly part of those exceptions to the norm: Chronicling the life of Beach Boys member Brian Wilson, it chooses to focus on Wilson’s life at two different eras, and to have Wilson played by two different actors in those eras. Sixties Wilson is played by Paul Dano, and chronicles not only how Wilson came up with the iconic Pet Sounds record, but also how, at the same time, his life was spinning out of control due to undiagnosed mental health issues. Twenty years later, John Cusack plays Wilson as a recluse, manipulated into social exile by a misguided (possibly malicious) psychiatrist and gradually finding a path back to good mental health via the intervention of a good woman. Both eras are shot differently, 16 mm cameras helping set the sixties era, while the eighties are portrayed as considerably bluer and flatter. The result is unequal, but there are a few good moments: Dano’s portrayal of Wilson is mesmerizing, never more so than when the movie dares to re-create his production of “Pet Sounds” in the recording studio. Meanwhile, Cusack gets to step away from his screen persona of late. The file goes back and forth between its two eras, and in doing so creates an interesting portrait of a tortured musical genius who ends up earning his way back to inner peace. Director Bill Pohlad skilfully balances a number of daring elements in Love & Mercy, and the result is more interesting than the usual musical docu-fiction.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) Sometimes, you have to let go of narrative and embrace the atmosphere. Despite it being a murder/courtroom drama, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is best appreciated as an atmospheric look at a southern-US Savannah and its unusual characters. It’s digressive, tangential, occasionally supernatural, almost uninterested in its own plot. It lives when it allows its characters to do their own thing, and grows weaker when it gets down to the business of narrative closure. This is a kind of film made for a particular kind of audience (director Clint Eastwood is often best at ease while idling), but even narrative-driven moviegoers may appreciate the unhurried pace at which it unfolds, almost as if it was an invitation to spend some leisurely time visiting Savannah. It also helps feature capable actors: Kevin Spacey is essential as a local mogul accused of murder and whose defence essentially rests on being a community pillar. John Cusack is fine but unchallenging as the audience’s stand-in to the local madness, but The Lady Chabis turns in a great performance by playing herself. If I had more time, I’d check out the book to confirm that this atmosphere is developed even more fully on the page – and I’d re-watch the film in English to get the fullest Southern-accent experience.
(On Cable TV, September 2015) As much as I’m a good audience for car-heavy action movies, as much as I can tolerate a lot of silliness, as much as I’m willing to cut some slack to low-budget films, there’s something just off-balance in Drive Hard. What should have been a generic action film almost-inexplicably features both Thomas Jane (looking shaggy) and John Cusack (in another low-budget role as a villain with a curiously sympathetic streak). Such name actors unhelpfully raise the profile of a generic action buddy comedy beyond what it can be expected to achieve. There are a few likable things about the film: Australia’s Miami-like Gold Coast is a picturesque but unusual setting, there’s a cute car chase featuring an underpowered car, and you can see how the rapport between Jane and Cusack exceeds the quality of the script they have to work with. Unfortunately, that script brings the entire film down. Structurally, it’s a bit of a mess, with subplots hastily cut down in a rain of bullet, the film’s best action scene placed far too early, jarring shifts of tone, an unpleasant misogynist subplot, and dialogue nowhere as smart as it thinks it is –with added bursts of extreme profanity that seem to come out of nowhere and cheapen the entire film. I have only a small idea of the behind-the-scene story about the film’s production and hasty re-writes, but the result on-screen is a big disappointment.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I’m not against craziness in my thrillers, even when the craziness is used as a substitute for logic or coherence. Grand Piano, in this instance, is a good example of what happens when flamboyance and go-for-broke audacity can compensate for a premise so unlikely as to defy suspension of disbelief. (It’s insane enough that even the villain’s henchman questions the plot.) Director Eugenio Mira goes all-out in trying to wring all possible excitement out of his script, and the result is a stylish thriller in which ambitious camera moves serve to obscure the nonsensical plot. There’s a lot of craft in the direction (early shots have two or three narrative points established in the same image), and the direction seems to get crazier as the film advances. Elijah Wood makes for a decent protagonist, as a concert pianist threatened with fatal retribution if he plays a single false note. Meanwhile, John Cusack lies in the shadows as the antagonist, literally calling the shots in a full concert hall and adding another antagonist role to his filmography. Grand Piano is a short film (excluding the credits, it barely inches past the 75-minutes mark) but it races through its plot points at such a dizzying speed that the flaws of the film seem less consequential. People most likely to respond favorably to Grand Piano include those who don’t mind a bit of style in their otherwise ludicrous genre exercises – I found myself liking the film a great deal more than I should, but then again I’m fond of thrillers that grab on to unusual premises and milk it to their fullest extent. In other words, I’m pretty happy with Grand Piano, a film with unexpected rewards that proves that maximalist execution can go hand-in-hand with a crazy premise.
(Video on Demand, April 2014) One of the strangest aspects of the shift from theaters of video on-demand for smaller movies is that from time to time, some films seem to punch well above their weight when it comes to actors. Here, for instance, we’ve got John Cusack as a remorseful hitman playing off Robert de Niro as a mob boss, with quick roles for Crispin Glover and Dominic Purcell (either of whom could and have carried smaller films on their own). And yet this is a restrained thriller, most of the action being concentrated in one night at an isolated motel. Even the casting may not work entirely at the film’s advantage: While Cusack is up to his usual good-guy role, he is getting a bit old for the young-guy-learns-better arc he usually gets. Meanwhile, de Niro seems once again to coast on a familiar performance (although one that may evoke more Dustin Hoffman than classic de Niro). Rebecca Da Costa seems lost in a role that requires too much of her at this stage in her career (the horrible costume/makeup that opens her performance does her no favours either) and seeing an eccentric performer such as Crispin Glover in such a small role seems like a bit of a waste. The rest of the film is just twisted enough to be interesting, but let’s not pretend that this anything more than a standard B-grade thriller voluntarily set upon a small scale. It’s reasonably enjoyable as such (call it perfect slow-evening fodder when you’ve seen everything else) but the too-big names on the marquee may suggest something more than it is.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) I have a minor fondness for minimalist thrillers set in closed-off environments where characters race against the clock to find out important answers, and that’s essentially what The Numbers Station is: aside from one or two scenes of context and denouement, the entire plot works as a theatre piece as characters are stuck inside an isolated station, confronted with a mystery and besieged by enemies. John Cusack has another go at his stock “assassin grows a conscience” role, whereas Malin Akerman isn’t asked to do much as the requisite brainy damsel-in-distress. The plot is by-the-number, but the restricted scope makes it feel a bit more urgent, and while the film clearly takes place in an espionage fantasy-world where the CIA guns down people at will with impunity, it makes good use of stock elements. What’s less fortunate is that much of the computerized screens are nothing more than techno-gobbledygook, and that the limited sets do mean that the film repeats itself even within 90 minutes. Kasper Barfoed’s direction could have used a bit more energy, but the simplicity of the film does have the advantage of leanness. While The Numbers Station won’t find a huge audience, it’s an adequate film compared to other Direct-to-Video offerings, and one that is likely to pleasantly surprise a number of casual viewers.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) There isn’t much about The Frozen Ground’s script that’s in any way special. Based on the sordid story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen, this is a film that does the usual serial-killer thriller in more or less the expected fashion. Much of the execution is equally bland: Newcomer writer/director Scott Walker is entirely too fond of shaky camera tight close-ups and the result can be a bit annoying. But location and casting both manage to raise this B-grade thriller to a level that’s worth watching. Most noteworthy here is Nicolas Cage as the lead investigator: For once, he dispenses with the usual Cage histrionics in order to deliver a far more measured performance, and the result is an interesting throwback to early-era Cage, before he started playing a grander-than-life himself in every role. (Make no mistake: I love operatic “nouveau shamanic” Cage, but the occasional change of tone is nice.) It isn’t the only against-type casting coup of the film, as the repellant antagonist is played by John Cusack (far best known for smart good-guy roles) while Vanessa Hudgens, moving farther away from her earliest squeaky-clean roles, plays the vulnerable victim who is the key to breaking the antagonist’s secrets. The Frozen Ground’s other big asset is location: by setting itself in cold dreary Alaska, the film gains a distinctive visual atmosphere, and seems to crank up the tension of the events a notch further. The most satisfying scenes come late in the movie, as a subdued Cage and a wily Cusack face off against each other in an interrogation room. None of those strengths make The Frozen Ground any better than a run-of-the-mill thriller, but they help make the film more memorable than another cursory effort at the serial-killer sub-genre.
(On-demand, October 2012) Paying homage to Edgar Allan Poe by turning him into an action/thriller hero has a certain allure, but it quickly leads to a number of debatable artistic choices. The easiest way to feature elements of Poe’s oeuvre, for instance, is to adopt a structure in which Poe turns into an investigator working against… a serial killer copycatting Poe’s macabre stories. It doesn’t help when a few of the murders are staged with an off-putting amount of elaborate gore (one of them worse than a similar scene in the Saw series). This clash between historical verisimilitude and contemporary Hollywood storytelling shouldn’t be surprising after similarly modern takes on (say) Sherlock Holmes, but it does reinforce the contrived nature of The Raven. John Cusack lends a considerable amount of cool to the character of Poe, his performance giving an unqualified boost to the film even at it takes it further into historical inaccuracy. (For the nadir, wait until the antagonist predicts the existence of horror movies.) The cinematography, costuming and other period details all have their moments, presenting a bustling version of mid-nineteenth-century Baltimore with a welcome amount of spooky atmosphere. The ending is just as unsatisfying as the opening text foretells, although it does dovetail clumsily with the commonly-accepted facts of Poe’s last days. What’s more damaging, alas, is the sense of déjà-vu that comes to dominate The Raven: We know how it’s going to go, not because we know about Poe, but because we’ve seen enough serial killer movies already. While Poe living today may very well have written gore-filled murder mysteries, one suspects that he wouldn’t be satisfied just following genre conventions.
(On DVD, January 2011) I come to Martian Child from a somewhat different perspective that those who approach it as a straight-up adoption drama. After all, I have read and enjoyed David Gerrold’s 2003 autobiographical novel that expanded the novelette on which the film is based. The novel skirts a bit with science-fiction content, but doesn’t depend on it, and the movie is even firmer in its mainstream affiliation. John Cusack makes for a sympathetic protagonist as a widower choosing to adopt a difficult child. The adult is a science-fiction writer; the kid thinks he’s from Mars: the rest is a mixture of funny moments and poignant sequences all leading to the expected emotional catharsis. It’s as routine as a film of this kind can be, that is to say that it hits all of the expected targets along the way and never feels as anything but a Hollywood movie. The details are interesting, though, and SF fans with a bit of knowledge about the field will laugh themselves silly at the portrayal of the SF writer as a superstar. Those with memories of Gerrold’s work won’t fail to notice, however, that Cusack is not playing Gerrold, and that significant elements of the plot have been changed –most notably that Gerrold is gay, while the film’s protagonist is not. Still, don’t assume any vast betrayal of the author’s vision: Gerrold himself appears (alongside his adopted son) in one of the DVD’s featurettes, and the merits of the written story in portraying a difficult adoption process have been generally preserved. While the film doesn’t amount to much more than a routine role for Cusack and a manipulative TV-movie-of-the-week drama, it is interesting in its own way, and the filmmakers certainly deliver what they intended. The DVD includes a few interesting featurettes, as well as an audio commentary that’s as mildly entertaining as the film itself.
(In theatres, April 2010) It used to be that high school jocks beat up nerds and took their lunches. Now, in this kinder and gentler world, they’re just stealing their movie ideas and using them in frat-boy comedies. I kid, but not much: for if time-travel is the conceit at the core of Hot Tub Time Machine, it’s about the least science-fictional science fiction film of the year so far. The time-traveling becomes a pretext for jokes at the expense of the eighties, in a plot generously watered in alcohol, crass language, loose morals and enough crude sexual material to fully warrant an R-rating. Three middle-aged losers wallow at the core of the story, trying to recapture their youthful binge-drinking episodes. While John Cusack does fine with his usual shtick, he’s almost the only likable character in-between other repellent lunatics and losers. In-between a dumb-as-dirt fatherhood mystery, constant threats of amputation, plentiful swearing, superficial laughs at eighties fashion and unexplainably homophobic set-pieces, Hot Tub Time Machine isn’t much of a recommendation for R-rated comedies. There are, to be fair, a number of chuckles along the way, from squirrel jokes to one reference to Hunter S. Thompson. But little of this manages to patch up the unpleasantness of the rest of the film, which ends up leaving a less than pleasant impression. If nothing else, consider that the film’s musical highlight is a cheerfully anachronistic performance of “Let’s Get Retarded” in 1986. The future, as presented by Hot Tub Time Machine, is even dumber than the mid-eighties. Now that’s saying something.
(In theatres, November 2009) It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Roland Emmerich’s 2012 tries to ape and one-up much of the disaster-movie genre. Where else can you find a 10.5 earthquake, a super-volcano and a mega-tsunami in the same movie? As such, it demands to be considered according to the particular standards of the disaster movie genre, and that’s indeed where it finds most of its qualities. The L.A. earthquake sequence is a piece of deliriously over-the-top action movie-making (I never loved 2012 more than when the protagonists’ plane had to dodge a falling subway train), the Yellowstone volcano sequence holds its own and those who haven’t seen an aircraft carrier smash the White House now have something more to live for. The problem, unfortunately, is that those sequences are front-loaded in the first two-third of the film, leaving much smaller set-pieces for the end. This, in turn places far more emphasis on the characters, dialogue and plot points, none of whom are a known strength of either the genre or 2012 itself. Sure, the cast of characters is either pretty (Thandie Newton! Amanda Peet!), competent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover) or entertaining (John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Of course, we want to see them live through it all. But as a too-late consideration of ethical issues bumps against less-impressive sequences and significant lulls (including a 15-minutes-long prologue), it becomes easier to see that this 158 minutes film is at least 45 minutes too long and suffering from a limp third act. The defective nature of the roller-coaster also makes it less easy to tolerate the hideous conclusions, screaming contrivances and somewhat distasteful ethics of the screenplay. While the clean and sweeping cinematography (interestingly replaced by a hand-held video-quality interlude during one of the film’s turning points) shows that 2012’s production budget is entirely visible on-screen and will eventually make this a worthwhile Blu-Ray demo disk, there isn’t much here to respect or even like. At least special-effects fans will be able to play some destruction sequences over and over again.