(In French, On TV, January 2019) As I’ve mentioned before, I do have one significant failing as a reviewer for some movies: As a Francophone, Shakespearian English (especially when heard rather than read) breaks my brain. Short bursts of it are fine, but I usually can’t maintain my focus very long on classical English, and it eventually exhausts me. This is why you’re unlikely to find very detailed or meaningful reviews of Shakespearian adaptations unless they update the language or offer a strong visual element to go with the dialogue. Or so I thought before doing something very unusual and watching a French-dubbed version of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. (When it comes to dubs, I’m an original-version purist.) Suddenly, the language is simply delicious to listen to; the lines are funnier, and I can enjoy it to the end. Of course, it helps that the play, and its filmed adaptation, ranks among the frothiest and funniest of the Bard’s plays. It takes place in a gorgeous Italian estate, where Emma Thompson is cute, a young Kate Beckinsale is cute—in fact, everyone is cute. It’s amusing to see actors such as Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves go for classical comedy, and that makes it even funnier in turn. The cinematography is good, the directing is clearly focused on the actors, and the soliloquies—even in dubbed French—are very well done. I’m not enough of a scholar to determine if the French dialogues are original to this adaptation or rely on an older canonical translation (and this is not the kind of information easily obtained), but I suspect that they are original to this dub and they sound good. If I sound unusually enthusiastic about Much Ado about Nothing, it’s largely because it challenges my presumption that Shakespeare is hermetic. I had a good time watching it, and that exceeded all of my expectations.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I thought that the fourth entry in the Underworld series was a promising step up—modern, relatively well-directed, with interesting action sequences and an interesting push in the future of the series. Unfortunately, fifth instalment Blood Wars is a return to worse form for an overwhelmingly dull series. While director Anna Foerster manages a few interesting images along the way, the script she’s using seems intent on stomping further on material than had become flat by the second movie. Vampires versus werewolves again?! Regrettably leaving behind recognizable urban landscapes in favour of increasingly fantasy-based locations, Blood Wars is either dull or silly depending on how much you care about the material. Shot in the same boring black-and-blue scheme, it has little to offer to set itself apart from its predecessor—although some of the Nordic snow-and-ice stuff is occasionally promising. Kate Beckinsale herself is noticeably older than in the archival footage shown from the previous films, but she can still rock a skin-tight bodysuit as well as anyone can. Elsewhere in the cast, only Lara Pulver makes an impression as a competing vampire—the rest of the characters are as interchangeable as they can be. Blood Wars doesn’t amount to much more than instantly disposable entertainment, but it has the distinction of being slightly above average for the series, somewhere around the first film but far better than the snooze-inducing second and third volumes. There will be another sequel, we’re told. I’ll watch it out of misplaced completionism, but won’t expect much.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) You’d think that a comedy movie bringing together the members of Monty Python, Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale (still an assured sex symbol at a respectable age) and a high-concept comic premise would lead to a minimal amount of laughter. But if you think that, then you haven’t yet seen Absolutely Anything, which is recognizably trying to be funny without actually being funny. The big premise has aliens assigning omnipotence to a human and seeing what choices he makes with it, with the fate of the human race in the balance. As an idea, it’s limitless … which explains the disappointment. It takes a while for the film to come up with things to do within that premise, and whatever throwaway gags are put on the screen seem almost too restrained compared to the possibilities. (The film also cheats by presenting a “start over again!” mechanism and using it at least three times) Simon Pegg does what he can with a classic underachiever character, but there is a limit to what he can do given the relentless mediocrity of the script. Good performances by supporting actors can’t help, and some of the alien material featuring the voices of Monty Python members often feel like undercooked inside jokes. Absolutely Anything makes the fatal mistake of feeling dull, which is just about the one unforgivable thing that a comedy in which anything is possible can make.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) There isn’t much in Stonehearst Asylum that’s startlingly new, but the result is well executed enough to make anyone wonder why the film hasn’t received more attention. As is usual with nearly all movies revolving around an asylum, the question of who’s sane and who isn’t weighs heavily on the plot—and seeing Ben Kingsley in a role similar to the one he played in Shutter Island doesn’t do this film any favour. There is a bit of a plodding rhythm to the movie, with a second half that seems a bit empty once the film’s Big Revelation is explained a third of the way through. (There is another Big Revelation toward the end, but it feels almost meaningless.) Still, what makes Stonehearst Asylum so interesting as an unassuming late-night cable-TV discovery is polish and atmosphere. The surprisingly good cast helps: Alongside an always-effective Kingsley, we get Michael Caine in a smaller part than expected, Kate Beckinsale looking pleasantly glamorous despite being in an asylum, David Thewlis playing the heavy and Jim Sturgess as the everyman protagonist doing his best to avoid overshadowing nearly everyone else. The 1899/1900 period setting is effectively rendered by Brad Anderson’s direction, the Victorian-era asylums offering plenty of opportunities for atmospheric visuals. The cinematography is clean and crisp, adding to the visual polish of a thriller than may not be exceptionally thrilling, but certainly has an appeal of its own. It wouldn’t be helpful to expect too much from Stonehearst Asylum: The film runs on low-grade thrills compared to some similar movies. But it plays much better than expected from a film that was a commercial failure and practically went straight to video.
(Crackle Streaming, February 2016) As far as horror thrillers taking place in murderously dangerous backwater settings go, Vacancy is perhaps more noteworthy for what it doesn’t do. Considering that the plot has to do with an estranged couple being stuck in an isolated motel used to film snuff movies, you would expect the film to be very explicit in its gory violence. But while some sequences in Vacancy are indeed disturbing, it remains reasonably light-footed in its depiction of gore. Thankfully, the result is to bring the focus back on the lead couple’s growing dread rather than in-your-face disgust at the sight of bloody mayhem. It makes the rest of the film’s growing tension more effective and helps distinguish Vacancy from countless other very similar films. It helps that Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale deliver performances anchored in reality: While Vacancy gets crazier by the minute thanks to director Nimród Antal, it does start with a fairly astute first few minutes that cleanly establish the protagonists before dropping them into a long nightmare. Several sequences help answer basic credibility questions about the nature of the premise (as in: why “Run, you fools!” isn’t an answer) and the thrills keep going during the appropriately short duration of the film. While Vacancy is no classic, it has survived well as a competent genre exercise. It could have been far, far worse.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) Nobody was really demanding a Total Recall remake when the 1990 Verhoeven film still holds up pretty well. But there’s no explaining Hollywood, and taking the film as-is rather than try to protest its existence is a good first step toward lowering one’s blood pressure. So it is that this 2012 version is most notable for its jazzed-up visual density: The 1990 film was made before the commodization of CGI, but this new version is filled with complex virtual environments, multi-layered visuals, swooping cameras moves, dazzling tracking shots and a tremendous amount of polish. (Also, alas, gratuitous lens flare.) It works insofar as the production design offers one of the most fully-realized vision of an Earthbound future since maybe Minority Report: robo-soldiers, hand-phones, surface-projection, skyways, interactive holograms, trans-core travel, hurrah! Never mind the lousy science of the film: the action sequences using those gadgets are quite nice: director Len Wiseman is adept at using the tools at his disposal to set up some impressive mayhem, and this translate into a number of remarkable shots, whether the characters are chasing each other through multidimensional slums, driving flying cars in future London, battling robots in three-dimensional elevators or using guns to propel themselves (unrealistically) in zero-gee. Collin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel all do well in their respective roles; you can even argue that Farrell, in particular, is quite a bit more credible in this particular everyman role than Schwarzenegger was in the original. Sadly, much of this Total Recall’s strengths are purely visual or superficial. When it comes to plotting, internal logic, world-building, character motivation or even moment-to-moment fun, this Total Recall is noticeably worse than the original’s sometimes-goofy charm. Making little attempt to truly go beyond the dream-logic of its progenitor, this remake frequently feels dull from a storytelling standpoint, especially for those who remember the original clearly. Still, especially for futuristic action junkies, the remake isn’t a complete waste of time: It frequently looks great, and it’s a decent showcase of what’s now possible when you throw enough special effects at the screen. It’s worth a look, but not a thought.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) After having trouble staying awake during the first two Underworld movies and skipping the third, I was a bit surprised to see that this fourth installment actually had some pep to it. After a prologue that demonstrates how ridiculously over-powered the heroine of the series has become (a lot like Resident Evil 4’s Alice, from the same
factory studio), Awakening seemingly take a bold narrative leap by skipping ahead 12 years and dealing audiences a new scenario in which humans have wizened up to the vampire/werewolf threat and are busy exterminating both. I say “seemingly” because not much actually changes in this near-future: Awakening is still shot in black-and-blue, Kate Beckinsale still wears the same form-fitting bodysuit and the fighting between wolves and fangs still becomes a bit repetitive. The addition of a daughter doesn’t do much after the first thirty minutes, and there’s a sense that plot-wise, the film sputters after a promising first act. Still, this series is about the fighting and there’s some effective work here and there by directors Mårlind & Stein. There’s a lot of mayhem on-screen, and some of it sticks. While Awakening overcomes its welcome even at less than 90 minutes, it’s not a complete loss. It may be a case of lowered expectations, but Awakening measures favorably against its often-dull predecessors in the same series, and action fans should see one of two good things in it.
(In theatres, September 2009) Thrillers are often as much about setting than about plot, and so the best thing about Whiteout is how it really tries to take advantage of its Antarctic environment. It’s -50c outside on a white plain of ice, and the film occasionally does its best to give us all the claustrophobic, glacial, howling implications of that fact. (The rest of the time; not so much, as any Canadian will tell you: no dripping shoes, no chapped lips, no frost-burn on the cheeks) Unfortunately, there isn’t much more than that in store in this long-delayed B-grade thriller: The murder mystery is a bit of a bust, and the plot holes appear faster than the twists and turns. Culprits are obvious early on (otherwise, why spend so much time featuring bit players?) and the way to the ending is littered with curious narrative choices: Why drag on the film for another 5-10 minutes after the action climax? Why rely so heavily on coincidences, egregious oversights, dumb mistakes (such as, oh, not shooting someone coming at you with an axe?) and a generally linear plot? Everything even remotely interesting is usually told twice (including flashbacks) and the intriguing fog of the first few minutes is so thoroughly dispersed that it has us wishing for more mystery. (Can you believe four people wrote this?) Even the execution feels off: it all leads up to a snowy fight in which it’s tough enough to know who’s who –let alone what’s happening. Pretty Kate Beckinsale may have sold many/most of Whiteout’s tickets, but she’s miscast and overly made-up: an older, more world-weary heroine would have been far more believable. On the other hand, she’s not making any better impression than the film’s other actors. As for director Dominic Sena, he’s done both better and more ludicrous in his career (Swordfish, anyone?) and either qualities would have been welcome here: he should consider going back to action movies. As it is, Whiteout is just frozen in place, offering only a few meagre reasons to see it: people used to shoveling snow off their driveways every winter will have more thrills doing so.
(In theaters, January 2006) I like to start movie years with an indifferent film that resets my expectations for the next twelve months. Given that goal, I couldn’t have found better than this limp sequel to remind me of how ordinary movies can be. If you liked the first Underworld, this is pretty much the same thing: Vampires, werewolves, automatic weapons, a vague East-European setting (though less urban this time around) and Kate Beckinsale in tight clothes. On paper, it founds fabulous. On screen, though, it just doesn’t work. Despite Beckinsale’s form-hugging costumes, this film, like the first one, can’t be bothered to develop anything past banality: even the action scenes are dull. There’s a semi-neat five minutes at the end, but that’s about it. Fans of the first film (there are a few) will note how tightly this sequel integrated with its predecessor’s plot, but everyone else will spend half the film figuring out how’s who, who wants to kill who and, most importantly, why we should care. The flat bichromatic palette doesn’t help, and neither does the indifferent direction. The first film didn’t deserve a sequel, especially if it’s going to be a lackluster effort like this one. On the other hand, consider my movie-critic sensors properly calibrated for the rest of 2006.
(In theaters, May 2004) Whew! Logically, I should hate this film; its disregard for simple narrative coherency (full moons, chasm-running roads, oh my!) only matches its ignorance of physics (Jumping horses! Exploding coaches! Conveniently-placed ropes!) and muddled sense of narration. Yet unlike The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you can sense an underlying method to this madness; writer/director Stephen Sommers knows that he’s being silly and isn’t being shy about it. (Heck, there’s even a reference to MAD magazine thrown in the mix!) Also, maybe more importantly, this film is seldom boring; while it runs too long (there should be a “only one massive castle fight” rule for movies like this), there’s rarely a dull moment. As a respectable film it’s a disaster, but as a homage to the whole monster-movie genre (with more than a bit of superhero action thrown in for good measure), it’s pretty darn spiffy. Special-effects-wise, some are great and some aren’t, but there’s certainly a ton of them! As if that wasn’t enough, Kate Beckinsale looks amazingly hot. (Hurrah for anachronistic hair!) Yes, I feel guilty for even thinking about getting the DVD, but too bad; it’s fun and I wasn’t asking for much more.
(In theaters, September 2003) Let’s take care of one thing right away: Yes, Kate Beckinsale is quite fetching in a series of latex suits that look as if they’ve been poured on her. She’s adorable as a kitten as she slinks around in the dark, her damp hair highlighting her vampire-white face. Good. Alas, that’s almost the only thing worth contemplating at length in Underworld, one of the sorriest waste of potential yet seen this year. Every five minutes or so, the script, the design or the director shows some sign of promise, which is then buried under a mass of unremarkable normalcy. Blade and its sequel certainly proved that there was something fresh and exciting to be done with the vampire mythos; Underworld is even more disappointing as it finds nothing new to do with both vampires and werewolves. (Instead, we have people posing as vampires or werewolves) The movie certainly looks great if you only watch thirty seconds of it; the gothic design and the dark, quasi monochrome black-and-blue atmosphere gives it an interesting style. Problem is, it’s a one-note trick played during the film’s entire duration. There are no daylight scenes in the film, and this monotony eventually becomes tiresome. There are no reasons (beyond creative laziness, that it) why the palette of the film should be so limited. Eventually, it all blurs into nothingness. But far worse than the look are the characters, a bunch of indistinguishable Europeans with no singular characteristics. The villain is especially dull, and Beckinsale’s character herself isn’t much more than a shapely body with a latex coating: she never cracks a joke or even shows a hint of personality. The action is repetitive (guns, guns, guns and not very sexy guns either), once again failing in comparison with the Blade series. It’s not that Underworld is completely worthless; it’s just that it barely shows glimpses of something much, much better, hiding in the shadows.
(In theaters, September 2001) An audience can forgive a lot of stupid stuff if only for two characters to end up together forever. Going to a romantic comedy built around the concept of serendipity, however, looks a lot like an invitation to be indulgent about 90+ minutes of coincidences. And, as a matter of fact, that’s pretty much what happens in Serendipity, another romance spoiled by its trailer, but first and foremost by sheer scriptwriting laziness. The fault certainly isn’t with the actors: Both leads John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale look as adorable as they should. Even the bit-players are surprisingly fun. Heck, even the first half of the film is amusing with its narrow misses, good-natured humor and general dynamism. It’s toward the end that the writer takes the easy way out. Something significant happens out of the blue, without any further explanation. Characters are gleefully forgotten out of the picture. A central romantic dilemma is never solved. Oh, and our two leads meet again in a completely non-climactic fashion. The whole film seems to lead to a big conclusion that deflates before impact. Sure, the two protagonists live happily ever after… but it’s still unsatisfying. And thus Serendipity fails Romance 101.
(In theaters, June 2001) When all will be said and done, the best two things about this Bruckheimer/Bay production will be A> The stunning centerpiece of the film, a 45-minutes-long re-creation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and B> a renewed appreciation for the masterpiece that was Titanic. The main problem of Pearl Harbor is its structure; while we could have lived with the trite dialogue, it’s hard to remember fondly a film that makes you wait an hour for the big action scene, and afterward goes on for another hour. You begin at Pearl Harbor and you end at Midway; or you resolve all the stories during the attack, but you! do! not! do it like that. It doesn’t help that the leads are blander than bland (though Kate Beckinsale is cute, and her fellow nurses even cuter), the dialogue is atrocious (they could hear me roll my eyes across the theater) and that Michael Bay’s usually dynamic style here comes across as unbearably pretentious. (I laughed aloud at a revolving door shot that went on… and on… and on…) The result is a mish-mash of a film, a 45-minutes Home Theater showpiece mixed with an emotion-free romance that drags on for a full two hours. It’s just that once you’ve seen the explosions, you just won’t care about anything else. At least Titanic, for all its faults, felt like a genuine story that didn’t waste your time. Here, at least half the film is filler, including most of the celebrity cameos that could have been cut without a moment’s notice. (C’mon; did we really need the Voigt, Gooding or Aykroyd characters? No!) It’s hard to say if the film fails because it’s too ambitious or because morons wrote it. In any case, it’s a half-success at best.