(On Cable TV, April 2018) We’re at the tail end of eighties nostalgia now, but I won’t complain if it brings us as finely crafted action movies as Atomic Blonde. Set against the inevitable fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this is a deliciously retro piece of work that nonetheless embodies 2010s attitude and filmmaking prowess, with Charlize Theron once again burnishing solid action credentials as an English spy trying to stabilize a dangerous situation where no one can be trusted. She is intensely credible as a capable heroine, holding up against waves of assailants: Atomic Blonde’s centrepiece sequence is an impossibly long sequence in which she fights her way out of a building against countless assailants, a virtuoso demonstration of what’s now possible with personal trainers, audacious directors, seamless CGI and clever techniques. This sequence is made even better by how it leaves visible marks and bruises on the heroine, dramatically reinforcing the realism of the sequence even in a generally fantastic film. (David Leitch directs, solidifying his resume after John Wick.) Other actors also impress, from an increasingly credible James McAvoy as an action star, to Sofia Boutella playing a very unusual “soft” role going against her established screen persona. (We’re really sorry to see her go.) John Goodman and Toby Jones help complete the triple-crossing framing device that fully plays out Cold War mythology tropes. A terrific new wave soundtrack helps complete the package, adding much to the film for those who even dimly remember the late eighties. Aside from its intrinsic qualities, Atomic Blonde is also a further salvo in how the eighties are being digested into mythology, ready to be re-used as second-generation pop-culture elements. Even if you don’t care about that, Atomic Blonde is a solid action movie fit to make any cinephile giggle with joy at how well it works.
(On TV, May 2017) Twenty-seven years later, I still remember the ads for Arachnophobia and especially it’s “thrill-omedy” neologism, coined at a time when hybridizing horror and comedy was still a daring concept. We’re far more familiar with the form nowadays, and that does play a part in appreciating the movie today: While some of the film’s methods seem a bit obvious now, the general concept is more easily accepted and the substance may seem more accessible now than in 1990. Arachnophobia, from its title, makes no pretension about what it means to be: a scare-ride for people who are even slightly disturbed by spiders. As the volunteer (and designated) spider-catcher in my household, I’m not really the prime audience for the movie … but I can recognize that it makes a decent effort to be entertaining. While the first half-hour is too long, the rest of Arachnophobia works well as a B-grade comic thriller. Jeff Daniels is suitably sympathetic as a doctor who gets far more trouble than he expected in moving his family from the city to the countryside, while John Goodman is remarkable as a slightly disturbing and incompetent exterminator. Arachnophobia is not a great movie, but it doesn’t have to be. See it with Eight-Legged Freaks for a good spider-movie double feature.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) Much has been written about how 10 Cloverfield Lane started life as a small bunker thriller named Valencia (in fact, hilariously enough, on the film’s first day of availability on Netflix Canada, the only way to find it was to search for “Valencia”), only to be radically altered by the addition of a special-effects-heavy ending to tie it to the so-called “Cloverfield” mythos. That certainly explains the weird change of pace toward the end and the feeling that the result doesn’t entirely belong together. Still, there’s a lot to like in the Valencia part of 10 Cloverfield Lane, as a small-scale thriller located in a confined space, with three characters that are only too willing to inflict harm on each other. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fine as a young woman on the run who wakes up from a car accident to find herself stuck in a bunker, but John Goodman is impressive as the bunker’s owner, hovering at the edge of sanity with a dangerous streak of aggression. Director Dan Tratchenberg knows how to milk suspense out of a confined environment, and clearly establishes the setting before using it to good effect. (I’ll be honest: That bunker is so nice that I wouldn’t mind spending a few days in there.) The suspense is handled well, and the film plays nicely with unanswered questions for those who don’t know where it’s going. Still, the ending does stick out quite a bit, and I really don’t care if or how or why this film relates to 2009’s Cloverfield. “Anthology series” seems promising, but it would work better if they didn’t play games with the audience. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded just getting Valencia.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) There’s a fundamental miscalculation in casting blue-collar persona Mark Wahlberg as an academic, let alone a novelist teaching English Literature. Fortunately, The Gambler is about, well, a gambler: someone so addicted to the thrill of gambling that he has embarked on a one-way trip to self-destruction. That’s the part of the role that Wahlberg seems to be interested in playing. Never mind the ominous hints that this is a thriller – The Gambler is best understood as a character study, with mild threats and unsolvable debt problems thrown in. Is it successful? Partly so: It’s often interesting to watch, features a great scene-stealing turn by John Goodman, coasts a long time on the inherent tension of being indebted to unsympathetic people, and some of the cinematography is quite nice. Still, there are a lot of parts to The Gambler and they don’t necessarily fit together very well. The protagonist goes out of his way to be self-destructive, which doesn’t help in establishing audience sympathies. The romantic sub-plot isn’t handled particularly well, as are the familial complications of the story. The ending abruptly remembers that there is a semi-criminal thriller element to the film and wraps up quickly (followed by a semi-ridiculous run out of downtown Los Angeles). It’s hard not to feel that, as interesting as The Gambler can occasionally be, it could have been made stronger and more memorable with a few changes.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) With every new Kevin Smith movie, it becomes harder and harder to remember why I liked his first few movies. It may have been the sheer novelty of the sharp irreverent dialogue (at a time where this wasn’t as commonplace) coupled with the conspicuously lousy directing. But Red State is so far from the example set by his earlier better movies that Smith’s name as a director is now more cause for a double-take than anything else. A dull and unpleasant departure in C-grade thriller-land, Red State doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and becomes less and less pleasant the longer it goes on. What looks at first like a cautionary tale about the dangers of Internet hook-ups quickly turns into an interminable sermon about right-wing conservatism, followed by yet another siege film in which the government agents play the trigger-happy just-as-bad guys. This Westboro-meets-Waco setup is pointless enough, but what makes it even less interesting is the sadism through which the characters are mowed down, the violent one-note caricature of the cult and the pointless resolution cloaked in anti-government clichés. Some actors manage to do good work: Michael Angarano could have been the protagonist of the film had it been better-conceived, John Goodman almost manages to acquit himself honorably and for all of the interminable duration of his monologues, Michael Parks is curiously compelling at the bloodthirsty cult leader. Smith’s direction has gotten better over the years but not that much better, and Red State‘s naturalistic atmosphere feels uglier than anything else, not exceeding the standards set by most Direct-to-Video thrillers. You can see the gleeful iconoclasm behind some of the film’s initial intentions, but the execution is simply too dull to be effective, and the film spares no time turning its audience against itself. As unpleasant as it is, rumors about an alternate rapturous ending as originally scripted would have made the film even worse, so I suppose we have that to be thankful about. Still, there is no excuse for the lengthy sermon scene or the trigger-happy violence. Where has Smith’s gift for witty dialogue, sympathetic characters or comic set-pieces gone? He keeps threatening retirement, and after Red State it’s easy to look forward to him keeping his promises.
(On TV, June 2013) Barton Fink’s reputation as a mystifying piece of cinema precedes it by years, and after watching the film I’m no wiser than anyone else in trying to explain what I’ve just seen. It starts simply enough, as a New York playwright moves to Los Angeles to write scripts for Hollywood. The initial satire of the industry can be amusing at times. But then the film moves in another direction entirely with a run-down hotel, a threatening next-door neighbor, a brutal murder, more symbolism than anyone can use, and enough references to other things that one can profitably mine the film for endless analysis. John Turturro is compelling as the title character, while John Goodman is surprisingly menacing as his neighbor/id. What Barton Fink does not contain, however, is a simply digestible experience: It’s a hermetic film that seemingly delights in throwing off its audience and multiplying contradictory interpretations. As such, it’s kind of fun: The Coen Brothers’ skill in putting together the film mean that individual scenes are compelling to watch, even as it’s maddening to piece them together in a coherent whole.
(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.