(On Cable TV, October 2017) Spoofing American society’s appetite for fame is self-obvious now that reality TV can launch mini-careers going all the way to the US presidency, but back in 1995, director Gus van Sant had to work harder with To Die For in order to present his mockumentary about an insanely ambitious woman working her way to the top of the local media ecosystem. Nicole Kidman headlines a solid cast made of competent character actors (Matt Dillon, Dan Hedaya, and the incomparable Illeana Douglas) as well as some up-and coming actors (Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck) who have since made a mark. Kidman proves surprisingly game to indulge in the film’s black comedy, preening herself up in a textbook-worthy depiction of psychological disorders. Everyone else stands in her shadow, mirroring how society tries to deal with such amoral dangers in its midst. The film runs a bit long (something that isn’t helped by the pseudo-documentary format) but is seldom dull thanks to the cast and the tone. While To Die For seems to have sunk back in relative obscurity these days, it’s still worth a look, if only as a precursor to the reality-TV era that would begin in earnest half a decade later.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) I have accumulated some delays in reviewing movies, and now that I sit down to write about You, Me and Dupree, it hasn’t been more than two months since I’ve seen it and already crucial bits are gone from my memory. It’s definitely about a newly-married couple and Dupree, a hugely annoying friend of the groom. There are certainly many scene in which the new bride (Kate Hudson) is annoyed at the interloper (Owen Wilson) and how her husband (Matt Dillon) can’t seem bothered to drive him away. I can at least recall a scene in which the living room catches fire. Michael Douglas shows up as an imposing father-in-law to glower at our protagonist, and that’s bad for him. But then it predictably turns sad as Dupree is underlined as a colossal screw-up who has no friends and no home and ends up on a bench in the rain. But don’t worry! Dupree somehow redeems himself (or maybe it’s pity from the main characters—My memory doesn’t reach in that much detail) and it all chugs along to a happy ending. I don’t recall the film as being particularly bad or good, nor offensive or unpleasant. On the other hand, it’s not registering as particularly memorable either, and that’s its own issue. Perhaps more noteworthy now for being the first feature film for the Russo Brothers (who would then go on to help two well-received Captain America movies), You, Me and Dupree is the kind of wholly unremarkable comedies to emerge from the studio system in the 2000s. They’re not awful … but they can be a challenge to remember even a short while after the ending credits.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a sucker for fast-moving crime comedies, and so it is that Canadian low-budget The Art of the Steal manages to hit all of the right buttons. From the get-go, it presents itself with narration-heavy stylish grace, zipping along its plot points while keeping a pleasantly cynical tone throughout. Kurt Russell stars as the protagonist/narrator, a master thief who’s been burnt once by an accomplice (Matt Dillon, as slickly slimy as he can be). When both of them are reunited for One Last Caper, you can guess where the story goes. Jay Baruchel becomes another good neurotic oddball (alongside veteran Terence Stamp for an added touch of class), but it’s writer/director Jonathan Sobol who delivers the most stylish performance. While The Art of the Steal liberally borrows from other similar films down to the expected twist ending, the result is pleasant enough to excuse any familiarity: sometimes, comfort is what we’re after, and fans of caper films should be more than happy with the result. Best of all; this is a cheerfully Canadian film both in origins and in setting: For something shown partially to fulfill CanCon requirements for home-grown cable channels, it’s surprisingly entertaining and slickly made as a bonus.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) I’ve been on the lookout for direct-to-video crime comedies lately, and even misfires like Pawn Shop Chronicles serve to remind me why. An anthology of three interlinked stories, loosely connected by a deep-south pawn shop, this a movie with significant tonal problems and an ending that really doesn’t bring it all together, but the quality of the direction and the number of known actors popping up in small roles is interesting enough. To be fair, Pawn Shop Chronicles starts out well: The first story, “The Shotgun”, brings together people such as a near-unrecognizable Paul Walker and a Thomas Jane cameo for a comic redneck meth heist thriller in which stupidity is never an impediment to attempted crime or loose supremacist affiliations. Director Wayne Kramer’s deft touch is already apparent, with a free-floating camera and small flourishes of visual style. It’s lighthearted and fluid enough to set up good expectations. The second story, “The Ring” is by far the most interesting, but it breaks the tone of the film in a way that’s irredeemable. Matt Dillon turns in a Bruce-Campellian performance as a newlywed husband ready to sacrifice anything to solve a mystery from his past. The story quickly turns gruesome as he keeps investigating, culminating into an abominable discovery that is as gut-wrenching as it doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. (Curiously enough, I immediately thought about a similarly affecting/atonal scene in Running Scared… and then found out that both movies were directed by the same person.) The ending of the segment can be seem coming from half a country mile away, but there’s a lot of good stuff along the way, including a radiant appearance by Rachelle Lefevre and another quirky performance by DJ Qualls. Still, by the end of “The Ring”, Pawn Shop Chronicles has left a sour taste, and “The Medallion” shifts gears into far more mystical territory with an Elvis Impersonator (Brendan Fraser, quite effective) making a deal with a supernatural entity to ensure an escape from terminal career implosion. There are numerous eccentric sequences along the way, but by this time Pawn Shop Chronicles should be busy bringing together its sub-threads, and while it does, there’s no overwhelming feeling of success: The epilogue set in the pawn shop itself feels more redundant than effective, and by that time the tonal problems are acutely unpleasant, especially when a psychopath thought to have been eliminated earlier reappears on-screen and gets rewarded for his actions. By that time, anyone could be forgiven for giving up on the film as anything more than a collection of interesting sequences loosely strung along a disjointed structure and a lack of satisfying payoffs. (Although it does feature an unexpected “At least Jesus didn’t write Battlefield Earth” bumper sticker.)
(In theaters, December 2009) As far as B-grade action thrillers go, Armored has a number of things going for it. Most notably, it adopts an unusual high concept (protagonist refuses to cooperate with his colleagues during a multimillion heist; finds himself trapped in an armoured truck while they scheme against him) and then spends an hour milking the premise for all it’s worth. Much of it feels mechanical, but there’s no denying that the claustrophobic set-pieces are effective. It feels just a bit fresher than many other thrillers out there, and the trio of familiar actors (Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne) headlining this practically all-male film is a bit amazing considering that in almost all other aspects, it feels like a straight-to-DVD feature. But the problem with Armored is that it simply doesn’t take things beyond the obvious. The actors seems to be slumming in their roles, the character dynamics feel simplistic and contrived; the action sequences are not particularly spectacular and the plot is simple enough that alert viewers will figure out the next plot twist shortly before it occurs. Add to that a number of credibility problems (traceable dollar bills, convenient bottom hatch, etc.) and it’s easy not to be impressed. This is pure formula thriller filmmaking, and while it’s generally enjoyable (it will whittle away a lazy evening), it remains much less than what Armored could have been. Moviegoers with long memories for French-Canadian thrillers will see the film with the added handicap of remembering 1987’s gutsier Pouvoir Intime as another take on a similar premise.