(On Cable TV, May 2018) The idea of remaking Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age is promising, what with the mutation of digital information, the superficiality of online discourse and the vague contempt that some people (fools!) have developed for paper books. Alas, while the 2018 version of Fahrenheit 451 does manage to score a few points, it falls short of what should have been possible given those ideas. As a vision of a dystopian America in which books (or any non-state-approved information, for that matter) are outlawed, it’s familiar despite a few social media flourishes. Canada once again stands proudly as the nearest haven, something that even most Canadians would have a bit of trouble believing given the troubles that American regularly exports across the border (guns, right-wing nuttiness, bad movies…) even when it has a sane government. This Fahrenheit 451 remake, at least, has managed to snag great actors: Michael B. Jordan is usually dependable no matter the material he’s given, and that goes triple for Michael Shannon as a complex authority figure. I always enjoy seeing Sofia Boutella, and that’s also true for Khandi Alexander even in too-brief roles. The plot is your standard dystopian “hero meets a cute rebel, discovers hidden truths, blows up government” kind of thing, which would be fine if it sustained energetic details and set pieces but that’s not the case here. In fact, some of the scenes are more ridiculous than anything else: as much as I wanted to like the sequence in which the protagonist discovers a library and a militant reader, I couldn’t help but have a quick (guilty) laugh when she revealed a suicide-bomber vest of books. The third act piles up modern nonsense over dull plotting, making science-literate viewers check out well before the ending. Production values are fine (especially for a made-for-TV movie) but Fahrenheit 451’s script simply doesn’t go as far as it could, seems afraid to poke at genuinely dangerous trends and simply fails to ignite like any good rabble-rousing anti-dystopian work should.
(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) The release of this Fantastic Four reboot was accompanied with wild rumours of a troubled production, an out-of-control director and such vehemently bad reviews that the worst could be expected from the final result. Unfortunately, most of those low expectations are met: Fantastic Four is a mess of a movie, dull and bland in the ways that comic book movies used to be before their formula was perfected, and disjoint to the point of incoherence. The detailed story of the film’s production may or may never be known, but, in the meantime, we’re left with a dour film that rehashes an overly familiar origin story, veers into a generic third act and can’t be bothered to make us care about archetypical characters that, let’s face it, shouldn’t take much work to flesh out. No matter why directory Josh Trank lost control of his film, the result feels botched and hurriedly completed to satisfy contractual obligations: There’s no sense of joy to comic book characters that should exemplify it, and if Fantastic Four very briefly forays into a fascinating body-horror sequence, it quickly forgets all about it moments later. What’s too bad is that it features good young actors who can’t be blamed for the mess: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara, in particular, can’t do much with the featureless material they’re given. (Mara, in particular, is given material fit to make her exceptionally unlikable, which is not how she comes across in other films.) Fortunately, all three have made better movies before and after, so their careers are probably OK. The inanity of the script may be organic or due to studio meddling—it’s hard to tell, but it’s not hard to be disappointed for the results. While some of the most vitriolic reactions to Fantastic Four may be due to frenzied Marvel fan-activism (as in: “Marvel should be doing Fantastic Four films! Let’s hope it tanks so that Fox give the rights back!”), the movie as made available feels like a throwback to fifteen years ago when studios given comic book properties didn’t even bother to treat the material with respect. No surprise is the result is almost instantly forgettable and (as hard as it may be to type this), makes Fox’s previous two Fantastic Four movies look good in retrospect. Strange world. But mark me down as interested if ever “Fantastic Four: The Director’s original vision with unfiltered commentary” ever comes out.
(On Cable TV, April 2016) As a look at the events leading to the infamous death of Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009, shot in the back by BART police while handcuffed and offering no resistance, Fruitvale Station goes for gritty mundanity. As it follows the doomed Grant through the last 24 hours of his life, even the dullest, most familiar actions carry a portentous weight. Ordinary decisions, such as helping out a grocery shopper, or taking public transportation rather than a car, all lead to the fatal events of that night. The racial component of Oscar Grant’s tragedy is unstated yet never away, especially considering the roles played by the white characters in the story. One feels the weight of fiction in the way Fruitvale Station neatly follows Oscar as he tries to change his life for the better, but even the boredom and domesticity in the film’s 80 minutes eventually mean something. Don’t expect heroics when police brutality is on the line, or sweeping cinematography when the point is to focus, hand-held camera-style, on a single man. The result may not be gripping throughout, but there is a steady rise in tension cascading into an affecting climax, followed by a terribly sad extended epilogue leading to a final scene that is nothing short of heartbreaking. Three years later, Fruitvale Station has already been influential: Writer/Director Ryan Coogler has gone on to deliver the well-received Creed, and is now helming a superhero film. Rising superstar Michael B. Jordan carries himself with a remarkable presence and holds his own against veteran Viola Davis. Fruitvale Station certainly isn’t fun or entertaining, but it does fill an essential and too-often ignored role in showing how movies can comment on recent history, reflect social realities and, in their own fashion, deliver an emotional punch on behalf of characters living in different ways from most film viewers.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) As a sequel in the Rocky series, Creed is far better than it could have been. Part of the appeal is to shift the perspective from Rocky Balboa to a new protagonist: Michael B. Jordan is very good as the new lead, but Sylvester Stallone turns in an even better performance that taps into the vulnerability of old age, wringing a lot of drama out of seeing a once-invincible protagonist facing down his own mortality. But Creed also works because it’s got a bit more on its mind than simply presenting an underdog boxing story: in its own way, it tackles racial inequality, class issues and romantic entanglements where the two lovers have their own agendas (the woman isn’t simply there as a complement to the male protagonist). It also helps that Ryan Coogler knows how to shoot a movie: The best sequence of the film is a two-round boxing match unbelievably shot as a single take from within the ring, giving a fresh and viscerally compelling look at boxing sequences that are usually stale and familiar. Creed adds up to a worthy generational passing-of-the-torch, an above-average boxing film and a film that dares go a bit beyond the expected to deliver something deeper and better.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) There’s a sub-genre of movies that could be called (for lack of a better name) “forgettable romantic comedies featuring up-and-coming movie stars”, and That Awkward Moment is a perfect addition to that canon. Its most noteworthy feature is that it stars Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Zack Efron—while the third is already a star in his own way, Teller and Jordan both have other movies (Creed, Whiplash) that hint at their true acting talent. Here, they’re not actually asked to do any dramatic heavy lifting: the film coasts a long time on their basic charm, even as their characters aren’t particularly admirable. Another romantic comedy for men that celebrates immaturity and boorishness, That Awkward Moment is perhaps best appreciated as a fake-anthropological study of young males on the cusp of romantic responsibility, although by the time the Hollywood process is done with the film, there’s nearly nothing authentic left to see. Various bits and pieces work; other bits and pieces are just puzzling or unpleasant given the casual misogyny of the script. Imogen Poots and Mackenzie Davis do well as the female matchups for the male protagonists, and as usual in these kinds of films they’re far more level-headed and sensible than our nominal main characters. It doesn’t amount to much: by the end, That Awkward Moment is slight enough to escape making any lasting impression other than a vague feeling that this isn’t going to be one of the films that Jordan or Teller will highlight once they become authentic megastars.