(On Cable TV, April 2018) Frankly, there isn’t much worth remembering about The Basketball Diaries than its cast and one dream sequence. One of those hard-hitting yet undistinguishable scared-straight stories of teenage drug addiction, this is a film that takes place in low-rent apartments, high-school classes, New York streets and basketball courts. It does have the good fortune of starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg, plus Juliette Lewis, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Rappaport and Ernie Hudson—a cast that ensures that interest in the film will remain as long as they are known. The other claim to fame for the film is the dream sequence in which the protagonist graphically commits a high school shooting—you can bet that in the years since, that kind of material is ever controversial. Otherwise, unfortunately, there isn’t a whole to note about The Basketball Diaries. It is a powerful anti-drug movie. It does talk about what teenage boys talk about. It is, in other words, not particularly unique in a world where dozens of those movies appear (and disappear without a trace) every year. But, OK, if you want to see a black-clad DiCaprio mowing down classmates, then this is the film for you.
(On TV, October 2016) Although presented as a mostly-innocuous romantic comedy (by definition, almost every film featuring Jennifer Aniston is bound to be innocuous), there is a troubling streak to The Switch’s titular premise (which has to do with, ah, mislabelled insemination) that makes the film challenging to enjoy on the level at which it’s offered. By the time the paternity issues are matched with the weighty passage of years, The Switch becomes far more unsettling than your average rom-com. It still manages to work, largely because of Jason Bateman’s blend of sympathy and antisocial faults. (I used to think of him as a likable straight man in his immediate post-Arrested Development film career, but if you look carefully at his roles since then, his persona has developed this growing streak of repellent behaviour—in other words, he’s become a credible bastard.) Meanwhile, Aniston’s persona seems to be a prisoner of the film’s plot twists—much like her character. Jeff Goldblum does show up periodically as a sympathetic boss, while Juliette Lewis continues to prove that she’s often best used in small comic roles. The Switch does end rather well, but there are a few squirm-inducing moments along the way, and the result may be more sombre than anyone expected.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I first watched Natural Born Killers on VHS two decades ago, given to me by a friend who thought it was quite the experience. He was right (for summers after, I’d refer to myself jokingly as “Natural Born Christian” whenever I shaved my head), and watching the film again today only highlights it. There isn’t much to the basic plot, as an abused couple goes on a crime rampage, are arrested, become unlikely folk heroes and then react to an attempt to turn them into TV stars during a live interview from the prison in which they’re held. But the way director Oliver Stone chooses to put together the film is special. Blending impressionistic techniques such as animation, double-cutting, various film stocks, repeated lines, colour shifts and tilted cameras (among others), Natural Born Killers aims to create a chaotic atmosphere and reach for bigger themes about violence and media amplification in American society. It still works remarkably well, largely due to solid performances and in-your-face direction. This was Woody Harrelson’s first turn as a quasi-villain, and it’s still creepily effective today. Meanwhile, Juliette Lewis is very good in a role very much in-line of her early persona role—and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually like that persona. Elsewhere in the movie, Rodney Dangerfield is brutally effective as the star of a demented expeditionary sitcom, while Robert Downey Jr. gets a small but memorable role as a ratings-obsessed TV personality. Natural Born Killer is noisy, confusing, exhilarating, depressing and sometimes even beautiful. It remains quite a viewing experience with a relevant message even more than twenty years after release. (Amusingly enough, the channel on which I watched the film at very low volume did not have fully working subtitles, adding to the messy chaos of the viewing experience.)
(On Cable TV, August 2016) I have almost no memory of the 1980s TV cartoon which Jem and the Holograms is based, so I approached the film wondering if it would take life on its own. Unfortunately, it doesn’t: a teen movie inspired by source material watched by their parents, it’s a bizarre mix of contemporary Internet buzzwords, robotic fantasy, treasure quest, wish fulfillment, limp musical numbers and dumb plotting. The tone is wistful on the verge of maudlin, completely missing out on the premise’s potential for fun and comedy. The result is simply not very good, and the nods toward the source material actually make the film worse. The (pre) teenage audience of the movie is likely to be disappointed by its dumb-even-for-kids plotting, with idiot decisions everywhere compounded with stupid assumptions. (The treasure hunt depends on hiding something in a major landmark for years, the protagonists coincidentally playing at a particular venue and them choosing to break into a place where they already have access. Most movies for kids have better plotting than this!) Jem and the Holograms has an irritating tendency to use the Internet as a magic trick (A million views on one video in a day or two! Massive success in weeks!!), approaching condescension along the way. Perhaps most damning, however, is the flat direction. Coming from director Jon M. Chu, who has a few energetic movies in his filmography (Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), this is a significant disappointment. Even blending mixed-media on-screen (via VHS tapes, Google Earth flybys, web browser windows, YouTube videos and the like) doesn’t work all that well. The musical number are dull and the rest of the film’s direction doesn’t impress either. The actors, fortunately, do better than their material. Aubrey Peeples does have a compelling charm to her as protagonist Jem, while Juliette Lewis looks more animated than she’s been in years as a scenery-chomping villain executive. Still, it doesn’t help much. Maybe it was a budget (the film was reportedly shot for a ridiculous-sounding $5M), or a lack of care and ambition. No matter: the result is unremarkable even with low expectations. Jem and the Holograms should have been much better, or at least far more enjoyable.