(Crackle Streaming, October 2017) Ho, boy. Another home-invasion horror movie. Another group of psychopaths. Another couple of innocent victims. Another unnecessary attempt at “evil can strike at any time!” messaging, submerged under the cheap thrills of psychopaths running amok. No, there really isn’t anything to The Strangers worth noticing when there’s an entire sub-genre of home invasion horror movies out there. I don’t like the genre, and I don’t like The Strangers, even more so given my girl-next-door liking for Liv Tyler. It’s a really dull movie, and the best thing that can happen for anyone who wants to see it is to goof up on similar titles and see 2008’s The Visitor instead.
(On Cable TV, May 2015) I seldom want to throw things at my TV during closing credits, but then again most movies aren’t as frustrating as Space Station 76. I’ll admit that part of my frustration has to do with expectations: Nearly everything about the film’s marketing, from the title to the trailer to the poster to the premise, suggests a light-hearted ironic spoof far lighter than what we get here… because after only a few minutes, it becomes glaringly obvious that we are stuck in the saddest indie-drama imaginable. As Space Spation 76 goes forward, the laughs never come: instead, we are prisoners of a bleak drama about crushing isolation, unhappiness and narcissistic characters. The Science Fiction elements are not used with any rigor or invention, and the comedy goes way past humiliation into depression. Fair enough; I wouldn’t be the first time marketing would sell an entirely different movie than what it is. But what kills Space Station 76 isn’t mismatched expectations, but unfulfilled potential. The film is bleak from beginning to end, and some sequences would be hard to stomach under any circumstances. But the ending doesn’t actually resolve anything: it basically fades to black without much hope for the relatively small number of sympathetic characters imprisoned with the crazy ones. People with sensitivities toward kids stuck in bad situation will be particularly infuriated by the Space Station 76’s refusal to provide closure. But then again, most people will be frustrated by the film, no qualifiers needed. As much as I usually like Liv Tyler and Patrick Wilson… I don’t usually go out of my way to suggest people should avoid a movie, but –again- I’ll make an exception for this one.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) At a time when most Hollywood Science Fiction blockbusters seem to be exercises in over-the-top action and densely dazzling visuals with little left for heart and compassion, it’s good to find an antidote in the form of a low-key SF comedy. Here, five minutes in the future, an aging robber reluctantly forms a bond with his newly-imposed robotic assistant, to the extent of recruiting his new buddy for one last score. Filmed with a surprisingly low budget, Robot & Frank even dispenses with extensive special effects work by using a simple robot suit worn by dancer Rachael Ma: it’s a film about relationships and subtle ideas, not really about spectacular visuals. Frank Langella is essential to the film as the protagonist with a troubled past: he anchors the film in a believable reality and effectively acts as a foil to the entire cast as they all seem determined to do what’s best for him. Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon is lovely as an aging librarian who becomes the object of his affection, and Liv Tyler makes the most out of limited screen-time as a daughter who learns better. Much of the film is a slow burn, executed with calm and confidence. It does builds up to an effective moral dilemma, though, and its exploration of memory (the tragedy of losing it, but also the curse of remembering everything) is as subtle as any film about aging could hope to feature. While some late-film twists and revelations fail to convince, much of Robot & Frank remains charming in its own quiet way. One of the best things about the mainstreaming of Science Fiction and the greater availability of filmmaking tools is that SF movies can now reflect a variety of viewpoints. The blockbusters are here to stay, thankfully, but it’s good to know that there’s something else out there.
(In theaters, April 2004) Ouch. While it’s not fair to begrudge writer/director Kevin Smith’s desire to grow up after five raucous comedies, it’s not poor efforts like Jersey Girl that will demonstrate anything. What’s nearly unbearable, though, is the dawning realization that the film’s problems stem from one source: The writing. The direction is surprisingly unremarkable for a Smith film (it looks like just about any cookie-cutter romance, which is a step up for Smith’s notoriously static style) and all of the actors do really good work, from Ben Affleck’s uneasy blue-collar worker to Elizabeth Castro’s adorable kid character. (Heck, even Liv Tyler has never looked hotter; it’s the glasses, I swear!) But the stuff that comes out of their mouth… eeew. Smith’s writing has always been the chief attraction of his films, but he completely (and repeatedly) misses the mark here: He brings to romantic drama the same sledge-hammer quality so obvious in his comedy and the result is a disaster. Characters spout off “on-the-nose” monologues to sleeping infants, react in broad and obvious ways that have no equivalent in the real world and engage in conversations that feel more like dramatic check-lists. Yikes. To add insult to injury, whatever comedy writing is in the film falls flat and feels forced. All in all, it’s not Smith’s new intentions that are at fault (despite everything, you can still sense the heart-felt bond between father and daughter) but his inept execution. Too bad.