(On Cable TV, November 2018) As a quick trawl through this site’s archives shows, I’m more than familiar with the novels of Vince Flynn, from which American Assassin was adapted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a fan back then, and most American thriller writers are now so far to the right that they’re often unreadable for any sane foreigner. American Assassin takes up that worldview verbatim, offering a vision of bloodthirsty terrorist hiding in every dark corner, gleefully mounting plans against all Americans and requiring the services of none other than a state-sanctioned psychopath. Someone very much like Mitch Rapp, traumatized by the violent murder of his girlfriend and positively lusting after revenge. You can probably write the rest of the film yourself, so closely does it adhere to the usual formula. Despite the numerous fights, chases and evil plans, it’s a surprisingly dull thriller. Nearly everything is on rails going from one plot point to another, and Dylan O’Brien doesn’t have what it takes to make a compelling protagonist out of what the script gives him. But someone else does, and it’s Michael Keaton—he shines brightly in a supporting role as a hard-as-nails mentor who positively relishes his job. Otherwise, some nice special effects illustrate a nuclear-driven climax. But that’s it—American Assassin plays to its paranoid base but doesn’t do the required legwork to reach out to a broader audience. It’s surprisingly boring whenever Keaton isn’t on-screen.
(In French, On TV, November 2018) No matter the era, America is always under siege. In the 1980s, even as détente was making the Soviets slightly less threatening, Americans discovered that the Japanese were going to outproduce everyone and buy everything. American industrial management were quick to obsess about Japanese production techniques: why was Toyota producing cars that were so much better than anything Detroit could turn out? 1986’s Gung Ho may not be a particularly well-known film these days despite being directed by Ron Howard, but it presents an impeccable take on the obsession of the time as a Japanese car company buys an American factory and starts imposing its methods. A significant culture clash ensues, spiced up by the fact that the American characters are being challenged to do better. Michael Keaton headlines the film with his usual charm, playing a foreman acting as the link between Japanese management and the American workers. Despite the obvious concessions to comedy, the film was reportedly used in Japan in order to understand how to manage American workers. The result is often more interesting as a time capsule than a conventional film—Howard directs unobtrusively, Keaton is his usual sympathetic self, Mimi Rogers shows up, a few more Howards (Clint and Rance) have supporting roles, and the film has a pleasant blue-collar atmosphere without being weighed down in the kind of dark drama that such mid-1980s setting usually accompanied. It’s watchable enough. A sequel, showing how American manufacturing adopted and adapted Japanese manufacturing techniques, would be sorely needed at the moment.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I’ve known about McDonald’s colourful history even since reading the unauthorized corporate biography Behind the Arches, so it’s a treat to finally see the story being told on-screen in The Founder. McDonalds is an American institution, so it makes sense that its history would expose the more sinister underbelly of that other American institution of capitalism. The entire film revolves around Ray Kroc, who begins the film as a middle-aged salesman having trouble making ends meet. His business trips eventually bring him to the first McDonald’s location, the product of two brothers’ ingenuity in speeding up restaurant service. Fascinated by the innovation, Kroc invests in launching a franchise operation, then another, then another … until effectively taking control of the company and forcing the original McDonald brothers out of the business, reneging on a handshake agreement along the way. Kroc is not written as a good guy in The Founder, but having Michael Keaton incarnate him is a stroke of genius in making our reactions to his action more ambiguous: Keaton is such a compelling actor and playing such a convincing salesman, how could any of this being bad? Except that, well, it was the essence of unshackled capitalism and the pursuit of the American dream—complete with a trophy wife—at the expense of the values and ethics that led the McDonald brothers to create what Kroc dearly wanted for himself. It’s a story worth contemplating and even if the script isn’t without its issues (not spending much time on Kroc’s persona life) nor anachronisms (McDonalds did have a bit of an identity crisis when it discovered that it was as much a real estate company as a restaurant business, but that happened closer to the 1970s) it’s a convincing historical re-creation and a magnificent showcase for Keaton’s skills. Far from being a corporate hagiography, director John Lee Hancock’s The Founder actually zeroes on a familiar yet always-interesting paradox: What if dodgy ethics were a requirement for phenomenal business growth?
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Like most, I was very skeptical of yet another attempt to reboot the Spider-Man series. Only the idea that Marvel Studio was the creative force behind Spider-Man: Homecoming (and the affirmation that the film would fit within the MCU) kept me hopeful. As it happens, this new integrated take on the character is completely successful. Indeed coming back home to the character’s spiritual and physical origins, Homecoming manages a fresh take on an overexposed character, seamlessly blending him with the rest of the superhero universe and also taking on the Marvel house style honed to perfection over the past ten years. While I liked Andree Garfield a lot as Spider-Man, Tom Holland brings the required wide-eyed naiveté to the character, making the relationship with father-surrogate Tony Stark even more interesting. Strong action sequences and a credible villain (leading to an honestly surprising moment midway through the film where Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s identities come crashing together) do much to make the film fun, but so do the de-rigueur touches of humour and self-conscious goofiness. By choosing to depict a looser, funnier, younger Spider-Man, the MCU creative team has found a terrific antidote to the increasingly dour direction the character was taking, and the result is irresistibly fun. The integration even works at the story level, as the film deals with the fallout of having alien invasions and superheroes running around; the MCU is maturing nicely as it grows older. Veteran actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei and Michael Keaton are used expertly to ground the film, while among the high-school crowd, Zendaya is remarkable despite having nearly nothing to do (at least until the sequel.) Homecoming adds up to a surprisingly entertaining movie, even more so given the low expectations. Once again, Marvel Studio defies the odds.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2017) I recall seeing The Paper on its opening week, happy (as a former high-school paper editor) to see a film where newspapermen were heroes. I kept a good memory of the result, but I was curious to see if it held up two decades later. Fortunately, The Paper remains almost a definitive statement on 1990s city journalism. Tightly compressed in not much more than 24 hours of action, The Paper follows a hectic day in the life of a newspaper editor juggling work, family and citywide tensions. Directed with a lot of nervous energy by Ron Howard, The Paper can boast of an astonishing cast. Other than a top-form Michael Keaton as a harried news editor, there’s Robert Duvall as a grizzled senior editor, Glenn Close as something of an antagonist, Marisa Tomei as a pregnant journalist desperate for a last bit of newsroom action, Randy Quaid as a rough-and-tough journalist … and so on, all the way to two of my favourite character actresses, Roma Maffia and Siobhan Fallon, in small roles. The dense and taut script by the Koepp brothers offers a fascinating glimpse at the inner working of a nineties NYC newspaper, bolstered by astonishing set design: That newsroom is a thing of beauty as the camera flies by and catches glimpses of dozens of other subplots running along the edges of the screen. You may even be reminded of how things used to work before the rise of the 24-hour Internet-fuelled news cycle. (Of all the things that the Internet has killed, “Stop the presses!” is an under-appreciated loss.) The Paper is one of those solid, satisfying movies that don’t really revolutionize anything, but happen to execute their premise as well as they could, and ends up being a reference in time. I’m sad to report that by 2017, The Paper seems to have been largely forgotten—while I caught it on Cable TV, it rarely comes up in discussions, has a scant IMDB following, and is rarely mentioned while discussing the careers of the players involved. Too bad—with luck, it will endure as the kind of film you’re happy to discover by yourself.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) For such an underwhelming horror movie, White Noise does have the distinction of an unnerving trailer—a trailer so good, in fact, that it managed to make me seek out the film even twelve years later. This being said, let’s be honest: Critics savaged this film upon release, and time hasn’t been kind to it since then. For all of the energy and sincerity that Michael Keaton can bring to a character fascinated by supernatural electromagnetic phenomena, White Noise has a far better premise than what it can limply show on-screen. Far too often settling into familiar horror clichés, this is a film with few surprises in store, starting with the tired “communicating with the dead brings back evil spirits”. The mythology of the film is muddled, and there’s a far too arbitrary nature to the script as it manipulates its protagonist toward a specific third act. From a promising beginning, White Noise gradually loses its effectiveness to the point when its tragic ending only elicits a shrug. Too bad—but the trailer (which doesn’t feature much footage from the movie) still has a kick to it.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I’ve been re-watching a lot of pre-1997 movies lately, mostly films that I saw before starting to put capsule reviews on this web site. Much of the time, it’s an imposed event: the films haven’t aged well, fall short of what I remember, or don’t benefit from the power of discovery. And then there are exceptions like Beetlejuice, who ends up being just as good, if not better, than what I remembered. Beetlejuice is peak Tim Burton after all, blending gentle horror and black comedy in a mixture that remains largely unique even today. Alec Baldwin is fun as a good-hearted character (especially after his persona solidified in cad roles) while Geena Davis is spectacular as his wife. Winona Rider is remarkable as a goth teen, but it’s Michael Keaton who remains the film’s biggest asset, delivering an unbridled performance as Beetlejuice that remains, even today, a bit of an oddity in a far more restrained filmography. The special effects are still terrific, and their pre-CGI jerkiness adds to the film’s charm. Beetlejuice still works well largely because it’s so off-beat, doing and considering things that would be polished away in today’s far more controlled environment. The two musical numbers are a delight, and the macabre gags still feel faintly daring. It’s a film that certainly doesn’t overdo its welcome and scarcely more than 90 minutes, and it’s still a lot of fun as a comedic Halloween choice. See it if you haven’t, see it again if it’s been awhile—chances are that you will be surprised at how well it holds up.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) At first glance, Spotlight doesn’t look like the most exciting movie of the year. It’s meant to tell the true story of investigative journalists who spend months uncovering a systematic pattern of child abuse by Boston-area priests and attempts to cover up the scandal. That’s not exactly gripping stuff, and the first few minutes of the film don’t promise much more by focusing on a newsroom and Tom McCarthy’s sober (i.e.: not flashy) directing style. But here’s the strange thing: after a while, once the introductions are out of the way, Spotlight starts getting better. Much better. Along with the journalist heroes of the film, we start getting absorbed in the scandal they’re uncovering. As they chase down clues, we start sheering for those characters in all of their quirkiness, drive and doggedness. In its own quiet way, Spotlight has a few devastating sequences, whether it’s interviews with abuse survivors, encounters with the guilty priests, or a disembodied voice suggesting that the magnitude of the scandal is far, far higher than anyone would suspect. It builds and builds, passing over 9/11 and accusations being hurled back at the investigative journalists, until a satisfying revelation of the scandal … followed by a few devastating title cards as epilogue. Spotlight may discuss a church scandal, but it’s not an anti-religion film: Not only does it give voice to practising Catholic characters, it’s far more vital as a celebration of the power of investigative journalism. In its own low-key way, Spotlight is a terrific spiritual successor to All the President’s Men: In a fair world, this film would lead to scores of young people enrolling in journalism school in order to make the fifth estate even stronger, better and more relevant to the nation. Instead, we’re left pondering the devastating impact of the Internet on newspaper closures, the drive away from in-depth journalism and toward click-bait media. Spotlight isn’t flashy, but it does have a fair number of compelling performances, for the always-excellent Mark Ruffalo as an intensely driven journalist, to Michael Keaton further enjoying a later-career renaissance as a sympathetic editor, to Rachel McAdams as a sensitive investigator and Liev Schreiber as a surprisingly enlightened manager. The script is a wonder of efficiency, as it manages to make document analysis compelling and lays down its scandalous revelation like a nightmarish horror movie. Best yet: the film reportedly stays faithful to the facts of the events. Spotlight may or may not be the best movie of the year as exemplified by the Academy Award it got, but it’s in many ways one of the best-controlled of them, one of the most quietly engrossing and one of the most surprising. It certainly qualifies as must-see viewing.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) Significantly darker and grimmer than its 1989 predecessor, Batman Returns is at once more frustrating than Batman while being better in some regards. Director Tim Burton is back and obviously has more confidence in his ability to use the character’s mythology to serve his own pet obsessions. Adding two villains works well, although Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman is far more interesting than Danny DeVito’s Penguin. While Batman had a straightforward hero-versus-villain structure, this sequel mixes the cards a bit with additional villains and allies, gets going into heavier themes of abandonment and social validation (Daniel Waters wrote the script!), and seems far more comfortable in its cinematography than the previous film. Alas, some moments don’t work as well: At least twice (the nose bite, the death of the beauty queen, arguably the sad conclusion), the film gets significantly too dark for its own good and wastes some of the viewer’s best intentions. Some rough CGI work is fascinating, but decisively date the film. Still, the set design is arresting, the film moves briskly from one plot point to another, offering a few high points (such as the Masquerade Ball) and smaller rewards from beginning to end. Christopher Walken has a great villainous role, while Michael Keaton remains better than more people remember at Batman/Bruce Wayne. In context, it would take another twelve years (and a superhero wave of movies kicked off by 2000’s X-Men) until Batman got any better on the big screen. Hey, I remember seeing Batman Returns in theatres with friends, back when I actually started going to the movies (which, given that the nearest theatre was twenty kilometres away, was a significant endeavour for a small-town teenager). I can still echo the TV/radio ads: “The Bat, the Cat, The Penguin!”
(Video on Demand, March 2015) Once in a while, it’s good to sip a pure dose of concentrated moviemaking skill. Something like Birdman, expertly directed, featuring top-ranked actors at their best, delving into weighty themes and doing it with a strong sense of style. A comic drama about a washed-up actor in the moments leading up to his Broadway debut as a writer/producer/performer, Birdman gets inspiration from the world of theater to deliver a film presented as one uninterrupted sequence, the camera gliding from one character to another, skipping forward in time and even presenting fantastical visions alongside its realism. It’s a giddiness-inducing piece of cinema, from the perfectly-cast Michael Keaton (playing a former superhero actor) to an equally-capable foil played by Edward Norton (making the most of a reputation as an abrasive method actor), with an unsettling drum-based score, carefully staged performances, a bit of magical realism, barbed pokes at Hollywood trends and enough laughs to make us forget that this may be a very sad story. It’s invigorating, hilarious, poignant, impressive and accessible at once. The inconclusiveness of the conclusion isn’t as annoying as it could have been, largely because the film delivers so many pleasures along the way. Easily one of the most striking films of 2014, Birdman earned its various Oscar accolades: writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu certainly knows what he’s doing, and can do it in ample style.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) I haven’t seen the original 1987 Robocop in at least two decades and wasn’t a big fan even then (I’ve never been fond of grotesque ultra-violence), so this remake doesn’t offend me on any level other than a basic exasperation at Hollywood’s insistence in pilfering existing concepts rather than try to come up with something new. It turns out that while this remake doesn’t quite make a case for existing, it does tackle a few ambitious themes, is competently directed and doesn’t feel like an outrage. The basic premise remains the same, as a severely-wounded policeman is remade as a cyborg and has to face dangerous criminals at a time where corruption is institutionalized. This Robocop clearly exists in an environment where dubious moral judgements are made by corporate executives, where automated force projection is seen as desirable and where the lines between man and machine is becoming blurred on its own. As a result, the film touches upon issues of political manipulation and free will that weren’t strictly necessary for an action film of this kind. (It also features a hair-raising scene of pure body horror that goes beyond the limits of its PG-13 rating) Left untouched is the idea that police work isn’t necessarily all about well-informed deadly firepower, but I suppose that something has to be left for the inevitable sequel. Joel Kinnaman isn’t much of a presence in the titular role, but Michael Keaton is interesting as an affably evil CEO, while Gary Oldman offers a bit of humanity as a low-key scientist trying to balance curiosity with ethics. Jay Baruchel and Samuel L. Jackson also have smaller roles that capitalize on their core persona while stretching them a little bit. Still, the star here should be director Jose Padilha, suffering under Hollywood constraints to deliver a dynamic direction while touching upon quite a bit of thematic content. If the film has a flaw, it’s that the villains are a bit dull, and the ending somehow fails to cohere and bring everything together: it feels more like a few things thrown together for the sake of resolution and a bit of robot-on-robot combat. All told, though, it’s a serviceable remake, a bit better than it most likely could have been in other hands. Make no mistake, though: People are still going to remember the original far more readily than this remake.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) I’m not much of a car guy, but I will watch all car movies. This being said, I’m left nonplussed by Need for Speed, and the way it doesn’t do much with everything it has at its disposal. You can see some effort put in the film’s props, from exotic cars to practical stunts to bits and pieces of interest thrown in the mix. And yet, once you take the entire film in, it just becomes an entirely average action film with few distinguishing features. The film self-congratulates itself on being a car guy’s movie, but fails to draw in anyone who can’t be impressed by the rare cars on display. Aaron Paul is almost entirely bland as the protagonist, but Michael Keaton is surprisingly hilarious as an off-the-wall millionaire sponsoring an illegal prestige race and having a blast from within his command centre. The structure of the film is a bit of a mess with an overlong prologue that should have been handled in flashbacks; it doesn’t help that the film struggles with dull characters and a plot with numerous leaps of logic. There is, simply put, very little fun in Need for Speed, and that (despite attempts to resist comparing) is really what makes it so inferior to the Fast and Furious series. Somehow, it feels even worse to see so much effort squandered on-screen in the service on nothing much more than a forgettable attempt at a B-movie.
(On Cable TV, October 2012) As Mr. Mom nearly celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, it’s best to consider it as a film of its time, when it was easier to get laughs from the inversion of stereotypical gender roles. A father staying home to take care of the kids while his wife works a professional job? Hi-la-rious, with a large helping of male anxiety as side-dish. Social conventions have evolved a bit since then, thankfully, but that doesn’t mean the film hasn’t aged well. Sure, many of the pop-culture gags (or musical cues) are now nigh-incomprehensible to younger audiences, the pacing feels slow at times but John Hugues’ script exists in a nice reality worth visiting. Compared to more recent parenthood comedies, Mr. Mom doesn’t indulge in grossness or offensiveness: it’s pleasant enough, and has enough material for stars Michael Keaton and Teri Garr to shine through. There are a smattering of clever lines (“220, 221 –whatever it takes”) and a few good moments: The comedy hits its stride mid-way through as Keaton’s character reaches an accommodation with his parenthood duties, first badly and then more maturely. The soap-opera-inspired sequence is hilarious, even though it’s a bit of a departure from the tone of the rest of the film. While the film’s predictability and gentleness may not amount to nothing more than an entertaining time-waster, Mr. Mom still works at what it tries to do, and offers a window back to early-eighties attitudes.
(In theaters, August 2010) I don’t usually enjoy Will Ferrell’s brand of semi-retarded adolescent-grown-old comedy, so my expectations going into The Other Guys were as low as they could be. That explains my surprise at this generally successful buddy-movie cop comedy. Of course, everything will look great after the disaster that was Cop Out earlier in 2010; still, The Other Guys has a lot of fun cataloguing, tweaking and subverting an entire list of action movie clichés. It starts with a treat of a cameo, as Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson play bigger-than-life parodies of the action-movie cops we’re used to see on-screen. Then it’s back to “the other guys” who fill the paperwork and do the actual investigation that goes on behind the usual action sequences: Will Ferrell as a nebbish cop with a wild past and normally-staid Mark Wahlberg as a competent policeman held back by a mistake. The film comes with half a dozen of respectable action sequences, and a steady stream of hilarious moments. Of course, it doesn’t always work: The danger is subverting conventions that exist given their storytelling power is that the subversion often robs the film of its story. At times, The Other Guys is too scattered and less satisfying than it should have been. Another problem is that the material is so broad that it’s often uncontrolled: a number of scenes run too long and feel too dramatic in the middle of so much silliness. (The credits, for instance, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Michael Moore film.) Those tonal problems can be annoying: While the film generally takes place in a recognizable reality, it also occasionally slips up and spends a few moments in a far more fantastical Simpsonesque universe, and the shifts between both tones only reminds us of realism’s dullness. But the advantages of such a scatter-shot approach are that sooner or later, another good moment will come along to make everyone forget about the latest dull sequence. A number of eccentric characters all get their moment in the spotlight (few more so than Michael Keaton’s father-figure captain or Eva Mendes as a supposedly-plain wife), much as a few standout sequences really pop, such as a bullet-time sequence of wild debauchery tableaux, continued abuse of the protagonist’s poor Prius and a purely indulgent slow-motion boardroom shootout. The Other Guys isn’t focused and runs out of laughs toward the end, but bits of it are clever and its overall impact is surprisingly charming.
(In theatres, August 2009): How appropriate that a film about a confused young woman should be so conflicted about its own intentions. A limp mix of drama, comedy and romance, Post Grad struggles with an unremarkable protagonist, an episodic structure, dull scenes and intermittent comic wit. Alexis Bledel never engages as an apparently-perfect protagonist who still can’t get a job: her lacks of distinctive skills make for a bland lead that never earns any sympathy. (It gets worse once we realize that this supposedly-smart woman with editorial ambitions never once considers moving to where the action is –New York- even when Columbia beckons another character.) The script isn’t much better, mind you: Oscillating between wild comedy and family drama, Post Grad never seems to know what to do next: the dramatic threads are all underdeveloped, events happen without character intervention, and the whole thing soon feels like a slog. The highlights are few and minor: Michael Keaton is a refreshing presence as a doofus dad, and the film makes a surprising amount of comic mileage out of a flattened cat. One can only imagine the screenwriting process that led to such a scattered result: Was it a wild comedy toned down to a more general tone, or a hum-drum drama punched up with a few zanier moments? We may never know, especially since it’s hard to imagine someone re-watching Post Grad to hear a director’s commentary.