(On Cable TV, November 2018) Some movies celebrate the human spirit, and some movies focus on the innate depravity of people. Guess to which category Blindness belongs to? Here’s a hint: In a universe where a disease is turning everyone blind, government inevitably resorts to concentration camps where the prisoners are left to fend off for themselves. Authoritarian rule quickly follow, along with resources hoarding and mandatory rapes because it’s that kind of story. There’s a voluntary vagueness to the film that is supposed to make it universal but instead comes across as indecisive—coupled with the intentional flight from realism, it does make Blindness a bit of a chore to get through. Once it’s clear that the film has allegorical points to score, it does become obvious in the way it goes to achieve them, and that the characters are mere puppets in that service. Still, those issues are more attributable to the source (Nobel-award-winning José Saramago’s novel) than the film adaptation itself: from a visual standpoint, it is handled with some skill and no one will dare say anything less than favourable about the performances of Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in the lead roles. A few Canadian icons appear, most notably writer/director Don McKellar (who wrote but did not direct Blindness) in a small role. It’s unusually literary for a post-apocalyptic movie, but that doesn’t necessarily work in the film’s favour: instead, it seems to be pulling back from engaging with macroscopic ideas and locking itself up in its own pocket universe while everything degrades. Blindness is not guaranteed to be a good time for horror or Science Fiction fans.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) I liked the original Kingsman film, but with a number of significant reservations: writer/director Matthew Vaughn can turn out action set pieces like few others, but his sense of humour is crass, and his fondness for unpleasant gore (matching the source comic) takes away from what would otherwise be a more fun experience. Many of those highs and lows are also on display during Kingsman: The Golden Circle: the visual design (wow, that villain’s lair!), energetic direction and colourful characters are all great good fun … if it wasn’t for such over-the-top gore as many characters being fed through a meat grinder with subsequent cannibalism. Eeew. Or the heave-inducing “plant the tracker” sequence plot-engineered to be as gross as possible. It’s things like that which make it impossible to recommend the film without numerous qualifications, or to justify the acquisition of a Blu-ray edition. Still, at other times this sequel matches or outshines the original. Plot-wise, the film’s mess: predictable set-pieces grind the film to a halt when they’re dull, and speed by when they’re fun. The American Statesmen offer an amusing contrast to the Kingsmen, expanding the madcap world of the original. Protagonist Eggsy is all grown-up, slick and suave, meaning that we get to spend far less time with the chavs and he gets to play the Bond role model he became at the end of the first film. One likable character makes it back to the sequel only long enough to be killed, but on the flip side we’ve got Colin Firth back with charm, Pedro Pascal making a great impression, Julianne Moore chomping on scenery as an unusual villain, no less than Elton John being turned in an action hero, and Halle Berry bringing her best to the screen. Some of the action scenes are fun in more or less exactly the same way as the original: Pseudo one-take action sequences with plenty of speed ramping are once again at the forefront of what the film has to offer in-between needless gore and adolescent tittering. I don’t usually bother with star ratings because they’re overly reductive, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle offers another failure mode for them: When the good stuff in the film is forth four stars out of five and the bad stuff is repellent enough for warrant a sole star, a three-star compromise doesn’t quite seem to accurately present a good idea of the final result. Can Vaughn grow up so that we don’t have to approach his next movies with a ten-foot pole and an apprehensive stance?
(In French, On TV, July 2017) The good news are that Assassins is a crazy movie in the best sense of the term: It’s disconnected enough from reality to be enjoyable as a big basket of overdone action sequences and familiar genre elements. The not-so-good news is that it’s not really a good movie—much of the storyline is dull and for a movie involving the Wachowskis and Brian Helgeland, it fails to capitalize on its sizzle factor. Thanks to veteran director Richard Donner, there are some good sequences here and there: the taxicab blocked-by-a-bulletproof-window duel is ingenious in the way more of the movie should have been. Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas ham it up enough as competing assassins. But the best thing about Assassins may be Julianne Moore: For an actress who has such a firmly established persona of mature dignity, it’s a real treat to see her in a pre-stardom role that asks her to be trashy/techno in one sequence, then doe-eyed/cute for the rest of the film. Assassins is also the source of the delightful “Antonio Banderas’s Laptop Reaction”.gif, so there’s a tiny bit of internet meme history along the way. Assassins isn’t a major movie in any way and has already ended up as a footnote in other people’s careers, and it should be approached as such: Not as a movie expected to be good, but a grab bag of things that may be interesting.
(On TV, October 2016) The tale of Carrie and its remake is almost identical to the one of every other classic horror film and their remake. The remake is usually faithful to the overall structure of the story, but strips away most of the original’s rougher edges and leaves a shorter, slicker but generally featureless remake. Updating the references usually doesn’t mean much for the overall film (who cares if it’s uploaded to YouTube?), while the overall better technical credentials usually mean a less bumpy viewing experience. Seen back-to-back with the original, this Carrie remake is most notable for considerably speeding up the languid pacing of the original: despite being a minute longer, it often feels more evenly interesting than the original, with fewer digressions and dead moments along the way. (Witness the way two scenes featuring the other girls are combined early on as an illustration of how today’s scripts are far more efficient.) While the film is said to go back to Stephen King’s original novel, there’s no doubt that the original film is the template on which this remake is built. Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t bad as the titular Carrie, while Julianne Moore brings considerable credibility to the mother’s role and Judy Greer gets a more substantial role than usual as the sympathetic gym teacher. Kimberley Pierce’s direction is much flatter than the original, though, which helps this remake rank as technically better but far more forgettable.
(On Cable TV, March 2016) I watched this film with some reluctance: While Julianne Moore got stellar reviews for her role in this film, seeing a sympathetic character gradually disappear under the progression of Alzheimer’s disease isn’t exactly a cheerful topic for light moviegoing. As Still Alice inevitably walks toward a merciless conclusion, I wondered how it would manage to end gracefully without delving too deep into despair. It’s not an easy movie to watch: From the first moments, Moore’s character is established as someone with everything to lose from early dementia: She’s an intellectual, a mother, a woman who’s lived life fully and has earned her comfort. But when he’s diagnosed with a rare case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, everything gradually slips away, and even her considerable intelligence only hastens the drop-off when it comes. To be fair, Still Alice doesn’t dwell too long in cheap sentimentalism: it lets things play without drawing them out, and is capable of terrifying moments (such as when Alice meticulously prepares a self-destruction plan, to be triggered at a certain level of functional degeneration). Moore is indeed spectacular in the lead role, with surprisingly touching assistance from Alec Baldwin (not playing a complete cad, for once) and Kirsten Stewart (making the most out of her limited range). It amounts to an affecting portrait of a mind in free-fall, and the conclusion ends at what’s probably the last graceful moment of Alice’s life, letting the cruel business of physical death as a foregone conclusion. Still Alice feels even more poignant in learning that Richard Glatzer, the co-director of the film, had advanced ALS during its production, and died months after its release. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected, even though I could shake off the emptiness it created for a while.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) As much as I like being surprised by good low-budget films, bad expensive box-office failures have an attraction of their own as well. When it comes to movie-watching, big money is compelling, especially if you can see it on the screen: even when the story is hum-drum and the actors are sleepwalking through the plot, it can be moderately amusing (for schadenfreude-heavy values of “amusing”) to be swept along by what’s made possible by a big-enough budget. So it is that in Seventh Son, we get Jeff Bridges reprising his persona from True Grit and R.I.P.D. (speaking of expensive disappointments…), a curiously alluring Julianne Moore vamping it up as an evil witch, sweeping camera shots, an epic fantasy setting and slick CGI creatures. Unfortunately, we also have to suffer through a dull-as-dirt story, clichés by the barrel, barely repressed misogyny and grotesque secondary characters. Seventh Son is not fun, not thrilling, not even interesting to contemplate on a plot level: it’s far better to watch it for the visuals, the unintended laughter or the way it somehow manages to make its male protagonists exterminate the female antagonists without quite realizing how awfully misogynistic it is. Director Sergei Bodrov does put together a few interesting moments with the means to his disposal—too bad it’s in service of such an easily forgotten result. The decade-long glut of fantasy films lazily adapted from rote source material in an attempt to replicate the success of The Lord of the Rings is not helping the genre gain any ground. In the meantime, we can only watch in amusement and marvel at the colossal waste of money it is.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) I like to think that I’ve got a pretty good mental encyclopedia of fantasy movies, but this one had completely eluded me until now: A made-for-HBO film taking place in late-1940s Los Angeles in which magic is real and a gumshoe works at preventing a monstrous apocalypse. Fred Ward stars as the tough-guy private detective (named Philip Lovecraft, ha), and he gets a few crunchy lines in-between his narration and his one-liners. Cast a Deadly Spell gamely tries to portray a suddenly-magical Los Angeles and blend it with noir aesthetics, but it’s hampered by a low budget and by a lack of internal consistency: it’s never too clear how magic is supposed to work, as the various fantastical elements blend together in a blur of self-contradictory events. Still, the film works relatively well as an unassuming hidden gem, and if the final gag can be seen well in advance, it’s still good for a laugh or two. Director Martin Campbell and femme-fatale Julianne Moore would go on to bigger and better films a few years later. Cast a Deadly Spell was followed by the barely-related Witch Hunt in 1994.
(On TV, April 2013) The true mark of a film isn’t to be found in its premise as much as its execution, and twenty years after its theatrical release, The Fugitive remains as slick and tightly-paced as ever was. The cars are starting to look dated, the Internet isn’t there to speed up the information-gathering but no matter: it’s a well-made film, with a few good suspense sequences and compelling writing. The protagonist is smart, the antagonist equally so, and the plot is able to wring a lot of excitement out of a series of near-misses. Vintage-era Harrison Ford is pretty good as the titular fugitive, while Tommy Lee Jones solidified his onscreen personae with his dogged portrayal of a determined federal marshal. (Elsewhere in the film, keep your eyes open for a short role for pre-fame Julianne Moore) The cinematography is crisp, the city of Chicago is used to good effect and the pacing seldom lets go. All elements combine to make a familiar premise feel fresh and exciting: Twenty years later, thrillers still don’t get much better than The Fugitive.
(On Cable TV, June 2012) Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the strength of their cast, so it’s a relief to see that nearly everyone headlining Crazy, Stupid, Love is at the top of their game. Steve Carell anchors the cast as a recently-separated middle-aged man seeking lifestyle counsel from a capable womanizer, but he’s surrounded by more great performances by a variety of known names in a variety of large-and-small roles, from Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Ryan Gosling, alongside newer names such as Jonah Bobo and Analeigh Tipton. Veterans Tomei and Bacon are hilarious to watch in small but effective roles, but Gosling is particularly noteworthy, charming his way through a character that could have been immensely repellent in less-capable hands. After focusing on the protagonist’s attempt to recapture some of his male seductive powers, Crazy, Stupid, Love soon expands into a mosaic of romantic subplots, occasionally palming a few cards in order to deliver a few almost-cheap twists along the way. No matter, though: it leads to a relatively pleasant conclusion despite the overused (but subverted) graduation-speech plot device. Such genre-awareness is a crucial component of Crazy, Stupid, Love’s moment-to-moment interest: Beyond the well-used soundtrack (including a striking usage of Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La”), the sharp dialogue and the snappy direction, Crazy, Stupid, Love is just a joy to watch: so much so that even the tangled subplots and tortured twists seem cute rather than annoying. And that, one could argue, is a measure of the film’s success.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Political junkies will get their fix of gossipy fantasy in this made-for-HBO docu-fictive account of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 American Presidential race as seen from her Republican entourage. Fans of the original Halperin/ Heilemann book will be surprised to find out that this adaptation barely mentions the Obama/Clinton contest and focuses solely on Palin’s selection and the backroom dealings of the Republican strategists trying to do what they can with an unsuitable candidate. At its best, Game Change is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a major political campaign as a team of self-aware political professionals has to deal with a wholly unsuitable candidate. It plays like a mainstream Hollywood comedy in which a half-wit is thrust in a position of importance… except that it really happened, and it happened recently in an American presidential election. True enough, Palin occasionally comes across in the film as more admirable than her public personae would suggest: a dedicated mom, perhaps a figure to be pitied for having been asked to do more than she ever could. Still, she really doesn’t come across well here: out of her depth, overwhelmed, petty and of limited capabilities. The casting is exceptional: Julianne Moore excels in a nearly-perfect take on Palin, whereas Ed Harris has no problem establishing himself as a sympathetic McCain. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson turns in a clever performance as strategist Steve Schmidt, the nominal protagonist of the film. The film is generally well-directed by comedy director Jay Roach and scripted competently, but it does have to work within the constraints of real-world events: The dramatic arc here is slight (especially compared to Obama’s journey) and even understanding that this is a heavily dramatized version of events as they occurred isn’t much of a comfort. Game Change will appeal to those who remember the 2008 election well, but may not be all that compelling for others. Which is fine, really: Even political buffs deserve their slick Hollywood entertainment.
(On DVD, January 2011) If you consider this film solely from its pedigree sheet, you may expect something significant: Film-festival’s favourite, lauded by reviewers, nominated for a truck-load of awards, performances by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo —The Kids are All Right has to be something special, right? And if you just look at the surface, the film’s two major tweaks on the usual family-drama template may be interesting: As the two kids of a lesbian couple come of age, they reconnect with their biological father, causing the father and one of their moms to have an affair. Cue the applause for a frank portrayal of what modern families can be. But beyond that departure from the usual family drama formula, what’s left? Not much. So little, in fact, that once you get the “unconventional family” premise, the film struggles to justifies its existence: The dialogue feels familiar, the plotting is a well-worn formula, the characters are all annoying in their own way, and the laughs in this “comedy” are both rare and slight. By the time the film remembers that it has a serious adultery subplot, the film concludes at a speed it couldn’t bother to reach at any time before that. The sex scenes don’t rescue the film, and neither do the actors involved. There’s a self-defeating quality in how The Kids Are All Right manages to make its unusual family seem as boring as any traditional nuclear family elsewhere in America. Is the film all right? Sure it is. But not much more.