(In French, On DVD, September 2017) If there is a problem with true-life crime movies, it’s that they’re inevitably constrained by the real events, and any deviations from the truth, even to heighten drama, is seen as a betrayal. For filmmakers, the balance is tricky—too much drama and you may disappoint viewers, not enough and you risk boring them. As it stands, Alpha Dog stands closer to boredom even despite changing quite a few things about the real events that inspired it. It really doesn’t help that it chooses to tell itself through grainy naturalistic cinematography, bathing everything in grime and lowlight artifacts. The events described are depressing in their unravelling, as a fake kidnapping evolves into a real murder in a group of disaffected teenagers constantly up to no good. Their coterie of girlfriends doesn’t help, nor the dog-eat-dog aggression of their clique. Alpha Dog may be realistic, and that makes it even more dispiriting. While handled well, it does suffer from a far too long running time and a conclusion that spirals into nothingness. Addressing both of those issues, however, would have meant even greater deviations from reality, so who knows if these choices were the correct ones? Despite the film’s dullness, there is still some interest in seeing the young actors assembled here—many of them would go on to much better things over the following decade. Justin Timberlake is remarkable as a supporting player, while Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin (among many others) also show up in main roles, with Dominique Swain, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried share inglorious small roles as the girlfriends. Alpha Dog may not be an easy film to like, but it does have its high points.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Colorful and peppy to an extent that it becomes a plot point, Trolls is the kind of cookie-cutter kids’ animated film that now seems to come out monthly. I’m not complaining: The overall quality of such films have been relatively high, they do entertain the kids and they usually feature two or three standout sequences that are worth a look. And while I haven’t warmed up to Trolls the way I’ve liked even middle-ground recent efforts such as Sing or Storks, there’s still enough here to justify a distracted look. “Adapted” from the mini-dolls, Trolls does stake out a relatively terrifying premise in establishing a universe in which trolls are considered joyful delicacies by the joyless Bergen monsters. Thus threatened with consumption, our dancing-and-singing heroes are left free to run, befriend and compromise. The plot is simple, but what makes Trolls pop is the relentless assault of colours and bouncy songs, many of them reinterpreting pop hits. (The two big exceptions, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” and “Get Back up Again” are singles-grade pop hits on their own.) Any movie that starts with Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” (which begins by mentioning my birthday) is gold in my book, and while Trolls later goes the easy way by reinterpreting pop songs downtempo, the rest of the film can be listened to easily. Producer/voice-actor Justin Timberlake has much to do with this quality of the film (“Can’t Stop the Feeling!” became an authentic radio hit). The colour and rhythm eventually become part of the plot, but don’t fret: everything gets better by the end. Trolls is not a great movie, it’s not even a great kids’ movie, but it’s adequate enough, and its soundtrack means that you can, in fact, listen to the film while doing something else.
(On TV, December 2016) Some film pundits often refer to The Love Guru as the film that killed Mike Myers’ film career and while that’s a harsh assessment (I suspect that Myers’ own oft-reported personal issues largely played a role in his disappearance from the big screen—studio executives are more forgiving of box-office failure if they happen to people they like) it does acknowledge the fact that it’s simply not a good film. This being said, there are bits and pieces that sound great on paper: A movie largely revolving around the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team? Faux-Indian rendition of songs such as The Joker and 9 to 5? Featured roles for Jessica Alba, with appearances by John Oliver and Stephen Colbert? Justin Timberlake as a secondary character gleefully perpetuating the stereotype of French-Canadians with legendary intimate attributes? How can I not get on-board with that? Alas, it takes a remarkably short time for the wheels to fall off The Love Guru. The stereotypical humour begins from the first shot of the film, while various comic bits feel old barely two minutes after being introduced and repeated. It gets progressively worse, as the film’s self-satisfied comic arrogance mugs for laughs that don’t exist, introduces pauses for laughter that never comes and revels in gross-out humour ten years after everyone else … all the way to a strikingly inappropriate animal sex sequence played on ice. (There’s a joke about Mariska Hargitay that’s as dumb as anything else ever dreamed up—the kind of stuff that should never survive a first draft.) Given Mike Myer’s roles as producer writer and star, as well as the example set by his previous feature films, it’s not hard to find someone to blame for The Love Guru’s unfunny pileup. In any other film, the portrayal of Hindi culture would have been offensive—here’s it’s just stuck in a much bigger mess. Despite my best intentions, the film simply doesn’t work.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) My current life circumstances mean that I usually see movies 6-9 months after their theatrical release. In order to “stay current” and understand much of the ongoing conversation regarding movies, I often spoil myself silly on movies I haven’t seen but eventually will. This usually works pretty well and doesn’t ruin movies as much as you’d think. But there are exceptions and Inside Llewyn Davis shows the limits of the spoil-yourself-rotten approach in tackling plot-light interpretation-heavy movies. Having read many descriptions of what made Inside Llewyn Davis so interesting a while ago, I now find that most of the theories about the film are more substantial than the film itself. A ramble through 1961 Greenwich Village before the folk-music explosion, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a talented but prickly musician who may be at the end of his moribund career. The film follows him during an eventful week, but don’t expect much in terms of plotting or conclusion: As with many of their previous movies, the Coen Brothers don’t settle for neat dramatic arcs, fully-tied subplots or self-contained screen characters: they hint, leave plenty to the imagination, play with chronology and cut to the credits five minutes before other directors would. It’s maddening and yet in my encroaching old age, I don’t find it as frustrating as I would have years ago. (But then again, if you follow the Coen Brothers you’ve already seen No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man) The music is great if you like folk (I don’t, but the artistry is remarkable and then there’s “Please Please Mr. Kennedy” to amuse us uncouth barbarians.), and as a look at a specific time and place, it’s fascinating in its own right. The cinematography is remarkable, as this is a cold winter movie and there’s no visual comfort for anyone here. Oscar Isaac is fascinating as the titular protagonist while Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan have short but striking roles. While I like individual elements, themes and sequences of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m not sure I like it as much as the idealized version I had made up in my head while reading the chatter surrounding the film. You can probably figure out that this is a problem with me rather than the film itself.
(Video on-demand, January 2014) I may not have any measurable interest for gambling in my own personal life, but I’m certainly a sucker for films that revolve around the subject. So it is that even a disappointing thriller like Runner Runner can get me smiling even as its shortcomings are obvious. Justin Timberlake stars (and doesn’t do badly) as a bright young man who gets sucked into the seductive lifestyle of an online casino operation headquartered in sunny Costa Rica: the initial allure of his new job quickly turn sour when he discovers the web of secrets masterminded by the business’ shady owner (Ben Affleck, in a role that could have been played better by many other actors). The narration-heavy script is initially pretty good with the details, but those get scarcer as the film advances and accelerates, much to the audience’s detriment: As the protagonist’s life-saving machinations get more intense, our glimpse into what’s happening gets narrower and narrower, and the rhythm of the film seems to push aside much of the detail that initially makes Runner Runner so interesting. It also runs roughshod over some of the essential connective tissue of the story: The romance between our hero and the initially-unattainable heroine (Gemma Arterton, looking good but stuck without much to say) is developed without depth, to a point where no one really cares if she’s truly loyal to the protagonist or not. Timberlake isn’t too bad as the lead, but it’s Anthony Mackie who gets the most of his supporting role as an FBI agent, with a few good monologues to project an adequate amount of menace. (Mackie’s been seen in a few supporting roles so far, and he usually manages to impress in them.) Director Brad Furman doesn’t have as good a script as the one he had for his previous film The Lincoln Lawyer, and if the result may be a serviceable way to spend 90 minutes, Runner Runner is not quite as interesting as it should have been.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) There really isn’t anything new to this romantic comedy, but it’s a small triumph of capable execution. From the whip-taut dialogue of the opening sequence to its cheerful ending, Friends with Benefits is a clever self-aware take on the romantic-comedy formula. The fast-paced dialogue makes up a lot of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot to be said about the hipness of the film’s assumptions as coupled to the solidity of its morals. It’s a bright and cheerful comedy, funny except when it becomes convinced that it has to be serious for a while. Justin Timberlake adds to his growing repertoire of thankless roles, whereas Mila Kunis is an able sparring partner. (Woody Harrelson’s performance is also a small delight.) Friends with Benefits‘ witty script and solid dialogue (as well as brief appearances by Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone) reminded me of Easy-A, which is all too reasonable given that both films come from writer/director Will Gluck. As much as it would be easy to criticize the schematic nature of the film’s romantic angle, its heavy dose of unreality or the carefully delimited nature of the film’s irreverence (those satin bed-sheets surely get arranged strategically, don’t they?), there’s still a lot of sheer movie-watching pleasure in watching a slick rom-com gorgeously shot. New York looks beautiful in this film, and Gluck’s direction has a nice flow helped along by some fluid camerawork. It amount to a much-better-than-average romantic comedy, one that doesn’t push any boundaries but entertains charmingly.
(In theaters, November 2011) I’m glad to see that writer/director Andrew Niccol is back on-screen after a lengthy hiatus following the memorable Lord of War: With high-concept science-fiction thriller In Time, he recalls his even-more-memorable Gattaca in delivering an intriguing retro-futuristic allegory. In Time’s premise makes no sense, but it’s bluntly delivered within moments of the opening credits: All humans are genetically engineered so that they live “freely” until 25; after that, you have to purchase your own life… to immortality if you have enough time. Never mind how that happened; In Time picks up in a distant future where the system has been operational for centuries and where people never stop to question the artificial nature of the entire construct. That is, until a young day-to-day worker (played with some energy by Justin Timberlake) gets an unexpected gift of centuries and decides to go against the system following the death of his mom. There isn’t that much more plot to the movie than a slide into Bonnie and Clyde territory during the second half, but like Niccol’s own Gattaca and S1m0ne, In Time works far better as a fable than an attempt at realism. The stylised visual design of the film (which mixes influences from the forties to the seventies in a Los Angeles that feels out of time) is a clue that this is not meant to be take entirely at face value. Indeed, it’s a happy accident of release timing that In Time arrives in theaters during the first significant wealth-equality movement in a long time. “Occupy Wall Street” and “We are the 99%” happens to coincide strongly with the film’s populist leanings, and its make the film feel more satisfying in consequence. From a science-fictional perspective, In Time makes little sense either in conception or execution. It does, however, manage to extract quite a bit of mileage out of its premise, and feels like another decent SF movie in a year where (witnessing films such as Source Code, Limitless and The Adjustment Bureau) the genre has been blessed with a few competent outings. I suspect that many non-SF-fans will feel that In Time is a bit too cold and intellectual (a constant in Niccol’s films so far) to be truly satisfying, and they have a point: Still, it’s a decent, thought-provoking film –and let’s hope that Niccol’s next project won’t take another six years to arrive on-screen.
(In theaters, July 2011) R-rated comedies often seem to live in a different universe than the rest of comedies, and one of their chief characteristic is how much irreverence they can throw at institutions and beliefs that are otherwise untouchable. Here, nothing less than the sacrosanct image of the teacher as a virtuous force is under full attack with Cameron Diaz’s unhinged portrait of a strikingly inappropriate junior-high teacher. Drugs, embezzlement, thievery, coarse language and wanton seduction are all part of her repertoire, and if nothing else, Bad Teacher provides Diaz with a plum comic opportunity. Diaz isn’t the only good actor in the mix: Lucy Punch is a revelation as the neurotic Amy Squirrel, while Jason Segel is unexpectedly sympathetic in an everyman role and Justin Timberlake takes a few risks with a dweebish performance. Too bad, then, that it’s handled so unevenly: The script doesn’t really start to click until its second half (where characters are forced to act against their nature in the hope of gaining something), and the touchy balance between portraying an offensive character entertainingly is sometimes in doubt. It’s almost, yes, as if Hollywood tried to soften the edges of an edgier kind of comedy; in the subgenre, Bad Santa will still remain a reference. Meanwhile, the end result of this film is average, although individual moments stand out as being better than their sum. Some people will be offended; the biggest problem with Bad Teacher, however, is that it doesn’t give nearly enough laughs to those who are willing to play along.
(In theaters, October 2010) I will admit my scepticism regarding the idea of this film. A drama about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s early days? Why would David Fincher waste his time doing that? Granted, I find Facebook more interesting as a socio-technological phenomenon than as the hub of my online life, but still: Isn’t it a bit early to start making films about such a trivial subject? What I should have figured out is that five years ago is forever in Internet time, that Fincher knew what he was doing and that there was an interesting story at the heart of it all. Very loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s docu-fictive The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network does manage to tell a compelling drama in an entertaining way and even comment on a few contemporary issues along the way. The heart of the piece is in the story of how intellectual arrogance and runaway success can ruin friendships, but the real delight of The Social Network is in the ever-compelling script penned by Aaron Sorkin, from a fast-paced first dialogue that sets the tone, to a structure that jumps back in forth in time (the latter chronology being nowhere in the book), to the clever weaving of themes between old-school social clubs and new-style social media. As an acknowledged nerd, I was stuck at the picture’s fairly accurate portrait of how some very smart people behave, as well as the accuracy of some technical details early in the film. Fincher’s direction may be less visually polished here than in his other film, but it’s effective and coherent: this is a solid drama, and it deserves a flat and grainy picture. (The film’s most striking bit of visual polish, at a regatta, echoes the miniature-faking tilt-shift focus meme that briefly fascinated internet photographers a while back.) The Social Network also benefits from a number of striking performances, from Jesse Eisenberg’s deliberately stunted portrait of Zuckerberg to Justin Timberlake’s magnetic Sean Parker to Armie Hammer’s Winklevii. Part of the appeal is seeing high-powered people interacting (the script uses a “that’s the famous person” joke at least twice to good effect.) in ways that are at least plausibly based on reality. It all amounts to a film that’s quite a bit better than the sum of its parts would suggest –true moviemaking alchemy that leaves viewers wondering how and why it all worked so well.