(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.
(In theaters, June 2011) Every so often, a film reminds me that I’m fast aging out of the coveted male-geek’s demographic segment… and makes me grateful for that. So it is that I come out of Green Lantern wondering why that movie even exists. My tolerance for comic-book mythologies has never been particularly high, and seeing the Green Lantern universe on-screen only highlights how profoundly silly it is, even by comic-book standards. Here, the accumulated weight of decades of backstory abruptly presented on-screen never goes beyond the simply ridiculous. (Was it really important to learn that practically all characters in the film were grade-school buddies?) By the time we’re flying across the galaxies, discussing the yellow power of fear and fighting threats that unfortunately take the form of a skull over liquid-brown tentacles, the whole Green Lantern shtick is so far removed from human concerns that the film practically degenerates in nonsense. Few of the many people writing the script apparently stopped to ask why audiences should care. Little of the blame over the film’s lack of success should go to Ryan Reynolds, whose cocky charm prevents the film from sinking further into irrelevancy. (It’s also awesome to see Angela Bassett on the big screen again, even in such a small role.) On the other hand, Reynolds’ screen persona is so self-assured that the film is never believable when it questions the character’s lack of courage: Green Lantern’s annoyingly familiar coward-to-hero dramatic arc never gets going, let alone concludes satisfactorily. The dull script occasionally gives birth to a few well-handled scenes (mostly thanks to director Martin Campbell’s touch when it comes to action sequences), but the overall impact is muted. There’s also something slightly off with the special effects, although this ties into the whole “let’s go cosmic without making you care for it” problem. Clearly, I’m not as good an audience for comic book movies as I used to be when I can’t be bothered to say nice things about average efforts like Green Lantern. Ultimately, it may have more to do with the film’s point: Is it using comic-book mythology to talk about something else, or is it simply content to regurgitate the mythology on-screen, without caring if it has any real-world relevance?
(In theatres, January 2010) It’s been a long time since Mel Gibson has simply acted in a film, and his choice of vehicle for his come-back really isn’t a stretch: As a Boston cop who seeks to avenge his murdered daughter, Gibson relies on tics developed for Payback and the Lethal Weapon series, although in a far darker context. What seems like a botched criminal revenge killing eventually develops into a conspiracy involving politicians, state secrets, eco-terrorists and professional assassins. It doesn’t end well for anyone. While all of the above sounds pleasantly crunchy, the result feels curiously uninvolving. The story (adapted, updated and condensed from a mid-eighties BBC series) advances in jolts, with the political angle feeling particularly disconnected and superfluous. Gibson himself does better as the vengeful father, his grim (and increasingly creased) face lending a bit of gravitas to the shootouts that pepper the film. Director Martin Campbell brings a few good shocks and suspense sequences to compensate for mawkish flashbacks to the daughter-as-a-girl and an over-the-top final sequence that marks the fourth big movie in three weeks to make heavy use of pseudo-Christian mythology. Edge of Darkness doesn’t embarrass itself, but neither does it achieve narrative velocity. It’s a thriller for post-teenage moviegoers, but even with its grim atmosphere, it’s not even up to the equally-adapted-from-the-BBC State of Play in terms of effectiveness.