(On Cable TV, October 2018) Despite Hollywood’s supposedly left-leaning tendencies, it can be counted upon to deliver, year after year, a reliable stream of pro-war statements wrapped in the American flag, family values and unquestioned imperialism. The latest entry in the subgenre is 12 Strong, which heads back to the woolly post-9/11 days when the United States boldly invaded Afghanistan half a world away. Such initial force projection isn’t easy, and so the first boots on the ground belong to Special Forces, leading the charge that more conventional military troops would later follow. Afghanistan is not an easy country to invade, and much of 12 Strong portrays the adaptations of the American soldiers as the CIA sets up factions against each other. Our protagonists eventually take up horses as the only workable transportation in the country, leading to a somewhat surreal scene featuring a 21st-century cavalry charge. Surprisingly enough, 12 Strong ends with everyone making it back home against overwhelming odds, marking a rather pleasant change of pace given the number of movies focusing on recent American military disasters with few survivors. This is not a particularly deep film—there is practically not introspection here about the wisdom of invading other countries, nor about the looming quagmire that would sweep up American (and Canadian!) troops over there for almost two decades. The dramatic arcs of the film play on familiar threads: family, safety, and bonds between men under combat. Only the cavalry aspect of the film distinguishes it from so many other similar efforts. Still, the film is a decently entertaining watch under Nicolai Fuglsig’s direction. It does help that it features terrific actors: in between Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and William Fichner, the cast is a bit too good for the limited material, but they do give it a dramatic heft. It’s too long for its own good, and even then doesn’t quite manage to flesh out its characterization. But it does come alive in battle scenes, and documents an underappreciated facet of the Afghan invasion. At times, 12 Strong feels like a throwback to the war-is-an-adventure school of filmmaking, but that’s a nice change of pace from the overly ponderous war movies of late.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) I love when a movie works better than I expected, but the reverse also happens and unfortunately, I find myself underwhelmed by Guillermo de Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. Keep in mind that “underwhelmed” is a relative term: I still think it’s a good movie, and couldn’t be happier that it was actually crowned with a Best Picture Oscar. It’s a film that shows del Toro with his firmest grasp yet on his own brand of fantasy: It’s self-assured, archetypical on premises while quirky on details, delightfully otherworldly in its setting and playing up the natural sympathies of del Toro for monsters of all sorts. It doesn’t take a long time for the basic plot to be set in motion, what with a quiet young woman (Sally Hawkins, hopefully never again underrated) meeting an aquatic creature at a secret government facility. The alien-escape plot is decently textured with social discrimination, Soviet agents, power-mad military personnel and early 1960s social subversion, but it does remain as basic as they come. This is not necessarily a criticism, since del Toro’s best work has often been in maximalist approaches to minimalist plots, making up in richness of details what is too easy to follow in overarching story. Visually, The Shape of Water is just as lovely (in its own way) as any of del Toro’s previous films, even though the visual inventively is kept in check by a less expansive approach. This familiarity is also shown in the film’s themes, which is blatantly supported by having a ragtag band of disenfranchised misfits (gay, black, communist, disabled, aquatic) take on the white male military establishment as coolly incarnated by Michael Shannon. It works, but it really isn’t subtle at all. Ultimately, though, The Shape of Water just isn’t as interesting as much of del Toro’s previous work. As much as I hate sounding like an insupportable hipster contrarian, I thought El Espinoza del Diablo, Pan’s Labyrinth and even Crimson Peak (not to mention his more commercially driven material along the lines of Blade II and Hellboy 2) were ultimately more interesting than The Shape of Water. On the other, other hand (since we’re talking fantastic creatures), this is the film that got del Toro an Oscar, mainstream critical attention and especially enough box-office clout to greenlight future projects: While he’s been a long-time geek favourite, del Toro was, until recently, not much of a bankable name: Other than his propensity to announce projects that ultimately led nowhere, his movies didn’t gross much despite their favourable critical acclaim. Now that he’s been given an Oscar that looks suspiciously like a body-of-work recognition, what else will he show us next?
(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.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is now firmly on my radar after Mud and Midnight Special: his quasi-tactile sense of verisimilitude is astonishing, the local colour he brings to his stories is exceptional and he gets to control his movies by acting both as screenwriter and director. His frequent collaborations with Michael Shannon also help, as exemplified by Take Shelter, in which Shannon plays a young dad trying to keep himself and his family together through increasingly worrisome premonitions. It’s not a big movie, but it’s effective. The tension ramps up, Shannon is mesmerizing and Jessica Chastain shows up as a wife who tries to understand what her husband is going through. The ending packs a surprise whammy. It’s a good movie. But, if I can dedicate the rest of this review to post-viewing thoughts, I approached the film as low-key fantasy: there wasn’t any ambiguity in my mind as to whether the protagonist was suffering from delusions or prophetic dreams. I’m a genre-movie fan, and didn’t really bother with any realistic interpretation. When the surprise-ending came, I was more than willing to see it as a classical, literal fantastic twist with no other interpretation. Imagine my surprise when I started seeing references to the ending being open-ended—as a genre-comfortable fan, I hadn’t bothered with the depressingly realistic interpretation of the ending, in which we go back into the protagonist’s mind for another premonition. There’s probably a lesson here in terms of audience expectations and what they get from a movie, but I’m perhaps more interested in noting that Take Shelter’s ending does successfully walk a difficult line between literal and metaphorical interpretation … while being unusually successful in fulfilling both.
(Video On-Demand, March 2017) Director Tom Ford’s second feature is often just as controlled as his previous A Single Man, but it doesn’t quite manage to fully exploit the material at its disposal. Amy Adams is her usually remarkable self as an art gallery manager absorbed by her ex-husband’s roman à clef—thanks to some clever cinematography and dark clothes, her head often floats alone on-screen, focusing our attention on a role with a complex inner component. Told non-linearly while hopping in-between a base reality and fiction, Nocturnal Animals is happy to remain enigmatic even when dealing with terrible events. The novel-in-a-film is about gruesome murder, vengeance and a man losing everything. But what I did not expect to find here is as good a movie portrayal as I’ve seen of the reader’s experience with a great book: the way we get hooked in lengthy reading sessions, the abrupt transition from book to real life, the way the fiction bleeds into reality… I’m not sure any movie has quite shown it like Nocturnal Animal. This, paradoxically, makes the rest of it weaker, especially when it becomes obvious that reality and fiction are meant to interact and reflect upon each other (what a great idea to have Isla Fisher play Amy Adams’ fictional counterpart): the conclusion seems to hold its punches, and seems limp in comparison to what precedes it. Otherwise, we do get great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and a pleasantly gritty Michael Shannon as a doomed policeman. Add to that the terrific cinematography and Nocturnal Animals gets a marginal recommendation—with the caveat that it doesn’t all click as well as it should.
(On Cable TV, December 2016) There’s an interesting dichotomy at play in Midnight Special that’s likely to make Science Fiction fans as happy as it’s bound to infuriate them. Writer/director Jeff Nichols made a name for himself in crafting intimate character-driven dramas such as Take Shelter and Mud. But in tacking explicit science-fictional themes in Midnight Special, Nichols may have exceeded his capabilities. The good news are that his character-driven approach is still very much showcased here. He has an uncanny ability to portray the small details of his story and characters in an immediately compelling and credible way. On a moment-to-moment basis, Midnight Special is compelling for its quasi-tactile ability to portray reality. The small beats of the film are grounded to a phenomenal level, and it doesn’t take much for him to sketch his characters and make their adventures feel real. The opening sequence is immediately gripping, and there’s a fascinating moment later on when we see the result of a car chase rather than the chase itself. There are some serious skills on display here, and I would certainly like more directors (especially SF directors) to take notes on how to ground their concepts into believable real-world details. The way he uses his actors is also fascinating: Michael Shannon is magnetic as the lead character, a father trying to protect his son with special psychic powers. Kirsten Dunst shows up briefly in a lived-in role as a suburban mom, while Adam Driver gets an unusually sympathetic role as a scientist trying to understand what’s going on. But for all of the good that one can say about Midnight Special in five-minute increments, it’s a building disappointment to find out that the small moments and good sequences don’t build to anything particularly compelling. Answers are withheld, not all of the Weird Stuff is pulled together in a coherent whole, and the ending seems to peter out before the answers that it promised. There are some spectacular moments in Midnight Special, and some of them even include a terrific sense-of-wonder sequence at the climax of the film. But they don’t add up to something as good as its individual components, and that’s where Nichols’ lack of understanding of Science-Fiction as a genre shows up most clearly. Too bad, because Midnight Special is great in ways that don’t often have to do with SF.
(Video on Demand, September 2016) This off-beat film is based on the famous photograph of Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon in the White House. While the real story of the picture is detailed elsewhere for your fascination, the film uses the real story as a springboard to explore the character of Elvis, Nixon and those surrounding them—obviously providing the best dramatic arcs to the supporting characters rather than the titular historic figures. Michael Shannon isn’t bad as late-period Elvis: paranoid, unstable, not entirely deluded yet still charismatic and loyal enough to be likable. Kevin Spacey is equally good as Nixon, although the film doesn’t focus on him as much. Compressing the timeline of the events to barely 24 hours gives some energy to the picture at the expense of credibility, but the screenwriter doesn’t waste time in using this charged schedule to develop characters. Elvis & Nixon is almost refreshing in that there isn’t much traditional conflict to the picture. Sure, White House advisors fret about whether they can convince their boss to meet with a genuine superstar, and our viewpoint protagonist wants to make it home to meet his girlfriend’s parents, but otherwise this is a film that is content just exploring facets of its premise and taking viewers by the hand rather than shove a spectacle in their face. There are far better portrayals of Nixon out there in the film universe (I’m still fond of the silly comedy Dick) and more convincing Elvis impersonators, but their union in the same film is special enough and treated reasonably well. Elvis & Nixon will never become a well-known success, nor will it play much once its initial Pay TV window is over. But it works reasonably well at what it tries to do, and it takes us along for the gentle ride.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) By this time in his career, Seth Roger has such a defined persona that “Seth Rogen does a Christmas movie” is enough to suggest a fairly accurate picture of The Night Before. We’re going to see crudeness (especially penile jokes), copious drug use, dumb jokes, a paean to male friendship and some anxiety about (finally) growing up. Roughly half of Rogen’s movies in the past ten years have played variations on the same themes and this latest one isn’t any different. For all of the emotional scaffolding about three friends wondering whether their Christmas traditions are holding them together or holding them back, this is really an excuse for Christmas-themed drug jokes and assorted shenanigans. It does work reasonably well, but usually thanks to the actors more than the jokes themselves. Joseph Gordon Lewitt, Anthony Mackie, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon, and, yes, Seth Rogen all bring something extra to their roles even when they’re just doing what they usually do best. (Well, that’s not exactly true for Michael Shannon, who seems to be enjoying himself in a coarser role than usual.) Mindy Kaling, Ilana Glazer, James Franco and Miley Cyrus also show up in small but striking roles. Some of the comic set-pieces work well enough, and the film’s conclusion is just as gooey-reassuring as we’d like in a Christmas movie. As far as holiday classic go, The Night Before aspires to a place alongside Harold and Kumar’s 3D Christmas and Bad Santa, which isn’t terrible company when the syrupy nature of year-end celebrations becomes a bit too much to bear. “Seth Rogen does Christmas movie” it is, then.
(Video on Demand, November 2013) There’s something both annoying and admirable about the entertainment industry’s insistence at rebooting and shoving down superhero movies down our throats. DC’s maniacal insistence at reviving Superman after the 2006’s disastrous Superman Returns is understandable: Superman is iconic, the superhero film genre is still going strong, and there’s still some goodwill among genre fans for a good Superman film. Man of Steel, fortunately enough, is pretty much as good as it gets from a narrative perspective: Screenwriter David S. Goyer (with some assistance from Christopher Nolan) has managed to find a compelling story to tell about a fairly dull character, and it’s more thematically rich than we could have expected. Man of Steel, in the tradition of Nolan’s Batman films, voluntarily goes gritty: Zack Snyder’s direction favour pseudo-documentary aesthetics, the cinematography is more realistic than glossy, and the final act’s destruction feel more traumatic than purely entertaining. Much of this grittiness feels wrong for those raised on the squeaky-clean Superman character, causing more discomfort than necessary. On the other hand, the result is a film that’s reasonably captivating to watch: Superman has an inner conflict to solve, the action sequences aren’t generic and there’s a real effort to ground Superman to an identifiable reality. Henry Cavill is pretty good in the lead role, while Amy Adams does the most with a somewhat generic character. Michael Shannon brings some unexpected complexity to the antagonist, while both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get small but plum roles as the protagonist’s two fathers. While Man of Steel is (ironically) a bit too down-to-earth to feel like a blockbuster epic made to be re-watched over and over again, it’s a cut above the usual superhero fare: There’s some real pathos here, an origin story built on well-used flashbacks, sense of personal growth for Superman (something rarely seen) and the solid foundation for further entries. Recent superhero movie history has shown that it could have been much worse, and if I’ll happily take a glossy Superman movie over an unpleasantly gritty one, it would be churlish to deny the successes of this version of the character.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are times during Premium Rush where it’s not clear whether we’re watching a straightforward action thriller, or a glorification of the New York bike courier subculture. But why can’t it be both? After all, it’s practically a given that if you want to write an easy story set in any subculture, you bring in money, violence, chases and corrupt cops. Here, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt easily buffers his credentials as a hot young actor equally capable of playing action hero as he is in delivering sometimes-awkward dialogue: he plays the best of the Manhattan couriers, soon involved way over his head as a hilariously intense Michael Shannon chases him down. It’s all slap-and-dash by-the-number plotting, but writer/director David Koepp keeps things moving at a satisfying pace through interludes zooming around New York, hopping back and forth in time as the glory and danger of being an NYC bike courier is graphically described. There’s some satisfying black comedy in the way our protagonist sees the world, and some meta-amusement once viewers understand the way the cycling set-pieces are lined up in a row: Here’s some Central Park racing, here’s stunting in a warehouse; here’s a hip reference to flash-mobbing… You’d think that 2012 was a bit late in the movie-making game to deliver such blunt material, but Premium Rush is that kind of film: no subtext, straightforward dialogue, convenient coincidences and half-hearted plot justifications. (Well, maybe not even half-hearted –No one ever thinks of using the subway in this movie.) Does it work? Sure, but only in the barest sense: It moves along, delivers the goods with a bit of visual flourish and Gordon-Lewitt manages to be not annoying in a generally annoying role. But that’s it: If you’re thinking about Premium Rush as being anything but a glossy Hollywood look into bike messenger subculture, it’s disappointing. The film doesn’t sustain a serious second-guessing of its assumptions, and relies on stock clichés far too often to be respectable. Simply put, it could have been quite a bit better –either as a thriller or as a look into the subculture.