(Netflix Streaming, January 2017) Seasoned movie reviewers often praise execution over originality, and movies like Safe Haven tend to prove their point: what works in this film is familiarity, while what doesn’t work is audaciousness. As a romance/thriller hybrid, Safe Haven feels familiar from the get-go, although the opening segment insists forcefully on the thriller aspect of it. Things soon settle down on an idyllic portrayal of a woman on the run (Julianne Hough, unremarkable) finding temporary peace in a small coastal community. Preposterously cute, this segment of the film feels the most comforting: our protagonist soon finds a job, a place to live (without showing any papers!), friends and eventually an impossibly ideal boyfriend (Josh Duhamel, in a good role). It is, after all, adapted from a Nicholas Spark novel. In parallel, sequences featuring a dangerously unhinged cop suggests that this is all about to crash down … and it does, at the same time as lies are exposed, a relationship seemingly breaks apart and the town revels in its Fourth of July celebration. Familiar stuff, ably directed by veteran Lasse Hallström but comforting all the same: Likable actors such as Mimi Kirkland and Red West help sell the fantasy of a small town where people can just come in and be warmly received. But the film does have two twists up its sleeve and if the first one isn’t too far-fetched by the standards of the thriller genre, the final one (about Cobie Smulder’s character) just feels moronic, even by the conventions of heartwarming romances. It does help cement a generally unfavourable impression of a film that, up until then, was teetering between comfort and cliché. Once the final revelation rolls by, Safe Haven becomes easily dismissible as nothing more than romantic pulp, perhaps engaging at time but ultimately tainted by one useless twist too far.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) I may have seen Misconduct a mere three days after its simultaneous theatre-and-VOD release, it still felt like an old-school thriller in many ways. The cast certainly recalls days gone by, with headliners Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino showing up for a few menacing scenes despite the lead role going to the rather bland Josh Duhamel. At times, the film’s twisted-but-straightforward plotting recalls a quasi-endless number of basic thrillers that used to fill cineplexes back when they weren’t obsessed with franchise instalments. Occasionally, there is a Hitchcockian vibe to the way the images and audio cues are used to alarm viewers. But little of it amounts to much more than a derivative, competent thriller. It’s not without its good moments: Hopkins and Pacino are at ease in roles that suit their persona. First-time director Shintaro Shimosawa can stage a few decent set pieces, although the film doesn’t quite sustain its energy throughout. The plot is a big bowl of nonsense: It works best when it quickly moves over its dullest moment (the beginning is particularly intriguing, at least until it becomes a framing device), but it trips over its own plot threads. The result isn’t bad: strictly speaking, there’s much worse out there with the availability of cheap thrillers on streaming and on-demand platforms. But Misconduct doesn’t amount to much, especially considering the calibre of its two best-known actors. At best, it makes for undemanding evening entertainment.
(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) I’m constantly surprised at the number of romantic comedies that revolve around tragic material. In this case, Life as We Know It is a film founded on the brutal accidental death of a one-year-old girl’s parents—the laughs are supposed to come when two mismatched friends are designated as guardians. Will they overcome their initial disgust toward one another to bond with the baby and for a family? Of course they will—and part of Life as We Know It’s appeal is not only in the way the expected moments will come, but also in how it somehow manages to get laughs from a situation that’s more tragic than comic. Let’s not pretend that the result is an unqualified success: Life as We Know It is largely a routine film, with few surprises on its way through a familiar arc. The stakes are a bit too high for comfort (although the film does get a bit of emotional depth by taking the tensions experienced by new parents and cranking them up to 11) but the plot points are well-known. Katherine Heigl does herself no favours by taking on a very familiar character, work-driven and uptight to an almost unpleasant degree, while Josh Duhamel isn’t much more than a usual overgrown bro in a somewhat stereotypical take on a new father. Some of the supporting performance shines, though, whether it’s a pre-stardom Melissa McCarthy, Christina Hendricks (very briefly) or Sarah Burns as a quirky CPS case worker. While Life as We Know It emotionally zigs and zags a bit too much to be completely satisfying, it actually manages to build something halfway decent out of very strange elements. If nothing else, it may be of comfort to new harried parents looking for any affirmation that things could be worse.