(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) I hope that Americans sometime realize the utterly bizarre nature of their law enforcement “system”, with its odd pockets of arcane rules and historical exemptions. So it is that I knew nothing about the San Francisco Patrol Special Police as depicted in Kuffs … and I don’t think that the film makes a very convincing case for its existence. It doesn’t help that this is a film with severe split personality problems, trying both for 1980s violent police action and for fourth-wall-breaking comedy. Christian Slater (near the height of his popularity at the time) often provides comic asides to the camera, sometimes in the middle of otherwise dark and dramatic scenes. Some sequences (talking to the camera while gagged, bleeped swearing, drugged-out sequence, visitors barging in on a shot-out apartment) approach pure slapstick, while much of the rest of the film is dull dark action undistinguishable from countless other movies. The cast can be surprising: Milla Jovovich shows up in a very early film as nothing more than “the girlfriend”, while Bruce Boxleitner is taken out early and Tony Goldwin is playing silly. While Slater does provide the charisma that his role requires, much of the film seems to succeed accidentally rather than by design, so inconsistently does it whiplash from comedy to drama. It really does nothing good to the image to the private law enforcers of San Francisco to be portrayed like Kuffs does.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) If you want a stark illustration of what seventy-five years’ worth of innovation and social changes can do to a medium, have a look at 1928’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc followed by 1999’s Joan of Arc. Both of them are (obviously) retelling of the life of Jeanne d’Arc coming from the French movie industry, both of them looking at the story from various angles … and with vastly different means. The 1927 film is silent, static, black-and-white, heavy on dialogue and focused almost entirely on her trial. The 1999 version, well, comes from Luc Besson with the very energetic directing that we’ve come to expect from him. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this version is far less religious, with considerable doubt given to the traditional story and quite a bit of ambivalence regarding the role of gods and devils. The surprising cast not only reunites Besson with Milla Jovovich two years after Le cinquième élément, but also brings in actors such as John Malkovich, Dustin Hoffman, Vincent Cassel and Tchéky Karyo. Still, it’s Besson who shines, with spectacular battle sequences and a very modern rhythm to a familiar story. The film, unlike other takes on the story, seldom turns Jeanne d’Arc into a nationalistic symbol—The French royalty and clergy are portrayed unsentimentally, with a cynical approach to the entire affair. Despite some directorial prowess, the structure of the film remains confounding: The multiple false starts at the beginning of the film are near-useless, the middle sequence outshines the rest thanks to its gory war set pieces while the third act undermines Jeanne d’Arc’s legend with a far more contemporary take on the idea of divine possession. The least one can say is that this Joan of Arc is certainly not a boring film … even if I’m not entirely sure it achieves its own objectives.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) The Resident Evil series has been a mixed bag of inconsistent results, so it’s perhaps no surprise to find out that what is billed as a final instalment would be so uneven. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter starts on a sour note, as the big-scale Washington, DC, battle promised by the previous instalment is completely avoided, with an inferior opening action sequence setting low expectations. Much of the first and second acts are a moving post-apocalyptic mixture of road rage and zombie action, seldom reaching the lunacy that marked the series’ best moments. Iain Glen does bring a bit of gravitas to the instalment, just in time for the film’s most interesting third act, which sees the action go back to The Hive where the series began. The fan-favourite laser corridor makes a return appearance (although it’s absurdly easy to defeat when the panels are smashed) and it all leads to a competent set-piece between super-powered characters before a conclusion of sort is offered, finalizing series lead Alice’s role in the entire shenanigans. (Milla Jovovich gives it all she can, but the most interesting thing here is how visibly she has aged in the fifteen years between the first and last movies of the series.) As an announced conclusion, it does carry a not-entirely-unearned weight—unfortunately, it can’t meet those expectations. While there are a few good moments here and there, The Final Chapter remains a disappointment for not following up on the previous volume, for not fully giving satisfying endings to the series’ recurring characters and for settling for a fairly obvious conclusion. Even on a strictly visual level, director Paul W.S. Anderson turns in a routine film, without any of the visual flair he’s proven able to accomplish, even in the previous volume of the series. Much more would have been possible. With this lukewarm conclusion, it almost goes without saying that you’d better be a fan of the series before watching The Final Chapter—there’s little here, either in plotting or execution, to make it interesting if you’re not already invested in knowing how it will turn out.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) This hero-on-the-run thriller may not be particularly original, but it’s often on-point when it comes to execution. Largely set in London, Survivor follows an intelligence analyst (Milla Jovovich, ably playing her usual action heroine persona) as she finds herself framed for a terrorist plot. A great use of London locations helps sell the film, along with a decent number of recognizable actors including Pierce Brosnan unusually playing a straight-up villain. The best thing about James McTeigue’s direction is that it generally remains within the realm of the plausible despite the often logic-defying leaps in the plot. This helps explain why the film’s third act, when it abruptly shifts its action to New York, is a let-down: Not only does it break unity-of-setting, but it cranks the tension up to an artificial degree and does so artlessly. After a conventional but well-handled rising of suspense, the last minutes of the film are just conventional. Survivor is still not a bad film, but it could have been handled quite a bit better.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) As an unlikely casual fan of the Resident Evil series (I liked the first one, hated the second one, tolerated the third before the fourth hooked me again), I’m better-disposed than most in liking a new installment in the series, and Retribution does deserve a bit of love despite some basic problems. For fans of the series, the best thing about this fifth entry is the way it dares bring back past elements such as Michelle Rodriguez (who, in-between this and Fast Six, seems to be on her “Hey, world, remember me?” tour) and a glimpse at the protagonist’s pre-zombie suburban days. The film winks at its own mythology, and has the most obvious nods at its video-game origins by explicitly setting the story in discrete “levels”. Much of the series’ motifs are also in place, from the way the opening sequence quickly riffs off the ending of the previous film, to the final apocalyptic shot meant to set up the next installment. Milla Jovovich is also up to her usual standards, which is always good news. There’s a lot to smile about here, and that’s even before getting into director Paul W.S. Anderson’s impeccable visual composition. At times, Retribution is so beautifully shot as to approach art-house levels of cinematography: Witness the opening “backward” battle, the stark white-hallway fight, the New York sequence or the presentation of the secret base in which everything takes place. Given this, it’s regrettable that the film isn’t quite as good as it could be: some of the action scenes are meaningless, Rodriguez isn’t used as effectively as she could be, and there’s no escaping a sense of repetition among the chaos and explosions. Still, the visuals make up for many sins, and so I am really looking forward to the sixth installment.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s nothing wrong with a high concept if it’s well-used, and at time Faces in the Crowd makes the most of its central gimmick: A woman who, after a brutal attack, can’t identify her attacker because of brain lesions causing prosopagnosia or, in layman’s term, an inability to recognize faces. Writer/director Julien Magnat has a few good ideas on how to exploit the situation, and the film occasionally turns trippy as various actors are used to play the same characters in an effort to depict the protagonist’s state of mind. The first hour of the film is particularly effective as it describes an unusual condition and the chills that can come from it. Milla Jovovich also turns in an interesting performance in the lead role, as a vulnerable woman far from her usual butt-stomping heroines. Unfortunately, Faces in the Crowd eventually runs out of steam –as much as it exploits its concept effectively, it also can’t avoid some obvious plot developments, and by the time it turns into another heroine-against-serial-killer showdown, some of the energy has run out of the film. The ending can’t resist a few clichés along the way, including the one where the serial killer turns out to be one of the film’s existing characters. Still, most of the movie isn’t too bad, there’s even some thematic depth to it, and anyone who has been to Winnipeg will have fun spotting some of the landmark used during the film’s production in an attempt to present itself as New York, most notably the Esplanade Riel bridge used during two crucial sequences. Faces in the Crowd is considerably better than a lot of direct-to-video thrillers –at the very least, it’s interesting and has one or two new tricks down its sleeves.
(In theaters, November 2011) Since Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetaires endures as a perennial adventure novel, it makes sense that every generation would seek to adapt it to its own liking. In 2011, this means an action-adventure film heavily influenced by steampunk tropes, blending cheerfully anachronistic machines with swordfights and derring-do. It won’t work if you’re predisposed against big dumb action B-movies. But if you do enjoy big dumb action B-movies, then this is a fine example of the form. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a competent visual stylist, and his instinct for action sequence is better than most of his contemporaries. Holding back the quick-cutting out of concern for audiences watching this film shot in 3D, Anderson gives a good kinetic kick to The Three Musketeers and does justice to the fast-paced script. (Which is surprisingly faithful to the plot beats of the original novel, action movie theatrics being considered.) A number of capable actors hold their own in iconic role, whether it’s Anderson-favourite Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter, Matthew Macfadyen as the deep-voiced Athos, and Christoph Waltz as the Cardinal Richelieu the film deserved. A number of well-executed action beat enliven the picture, all the way to the swashbuckling finale in which two lighter-than-air warships battle it out over Paris. Classic French literature has seldom felt so dynamic; there’s a definite Resident Evil tone to the film, all the way down to an epilogue that sets up the next installment. I’m game for any sequel, but keep in mind that I’m an indulgent viewer when it comes to action pictures. And before anyone asks, I am atoning for this good review of The Three Musketeers by finally reading the Dumas book.
(On cable TV, July 2011) As someone who sees far too many movies in the first place (and once vowed to write something up for every single one of them), I’m probably friendlier toward straight-up experimentation than most. So never mind when writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi claims that The Fourth Kind is all based on real events or when the film’s marketing takes pleasure in polluting the information space: I’m more interested in the way the film skips and hops in-between levels of fiction, splitting its screen four-way and trying everything it can think of to appeal to documentary viewing protocols. The fun begins in the very first moment of the film, as Milla Jovovich gamely tells us she’s a movie star playing someone else. From that moment on, we cut between putative archival material (featuring director Osunsanmi interviewing “the real Abigail Tyler”, who’s really Charlotte Milchard in an uncredited role) and a more conventional dramatic rendition of events with a very small cast led by Jovovich, Will Patton and Elias Koteas. The Fourth Kind has a wobbly fourth wall, directly asking its audience to believe. As interesting as it can be to see two levels of fiction playing off each other (sometimes in similar camera angles shown side-to-side), it’s an experiment that shoots itself in the foot in constantly reminding us about the level of fakery of the more conventionally-shot segments, and then shoots itself again in the other foot when we remind ourselves that even the pseudo-documentary footage is just as fake. Oh, it’s entertaining itself to see a film self-destruct in this fashion and then hobble around screaming (and oh boy, is there a lot of screaming in The Fourth Kind) as it falls apart. (There’s so much hand-held wobble that even the split-screen itself moves around, earning a snicker as if the film itself couldn’t decide which footage to show.) But the film’s interest has little to do with its effectiveness as a horror film, because we’re left with a muddle of UFOs, Summerian myth, distorted voices and unexplained events. In its lack of ultimate release, The Fourth Kind is once again trading satisfaction for interest: while it’s unusual to see a horror film hold on so steadfastly to audience satisfaction denial, it doesn’t make it any better from a narrative viewpoint, and it sure looks as if the film doesn’t deliver a conclusion by lack of imagination or guts rather than purposeful enigma. It amounts to a film that jaded horror fans may appreciate for what it attempts to do rather than what it achieves.
(On DVD, January 2011) I have an unaccountable soft spot for the Resident Evil films, and part of the fascination is seeing how the series continues to surprise even in its fourth installment: Not only has it squeezed two adventures after the logical end-point of most zombie movies (that is: the infection going global, everybody dying, etc.), the series has actually recovered from the awful second film and Afterlife continues to show how clever it can be in delivering polished visuals, action thrills and further developments to its own playful mythology. Impressively enough, this installment depowers a seemingly omnipotent Alice after a deliriously overpowered first sequence. Then it’s off to Los Angeles (via Alaska) for a little more of that claustrophobic Resident Evil setting. A new crew is introduced, many of them discarded on the way to the conclusion, and there’s a nice little upswing to the conclusion. (Hint: don’t stop watching right after the credits start to roll and pay attention to the credited names that haven’t yet appeared in the film.) I haven’t always been kind to director Paul W.S. Anderson, but his eye for impressive visual sequences is undeniable, and his return to the series helps make this fourth entry the strongest since the first one. (This made-for-3D film looks really good even in 2D.) Milla Jovovich doesn’t have to make any special effort to make another good impression as Alice. Never mind the formula dialogue, characters or plot: the kick here is the same kind of over-the-top, hyper-glossy action visuals that the series has provided so far. Even ten years after the first film, Afterlife proves that there’s a little bit of juice left in the series.