(On Cable TV, December 2017) If Going in Style feels familiar from the first few moments, it’s not just your imagination: there’s been a glut of “old guys going wild” movies in the past half-decade, and they often feature the same actors. Alan Arkin can play old crusties like the best of them, and he almost reprises his The Stand-Up Guys character here to good effect. Morgan Freeman also reprises another character (from Last Vegas), while Michael Caine regrettably doesn’t go full Harry Brown as a pensioner seeking revenge. This is all very familiar stuff, going back to the idea that Hollywood, having maintained those great actor personas for decades, would rather reprise them (with laughter) than dare anything new. Still, under Zach Braff’s direction, Going in Style may be generic stuff but it’s well-made generic stuff. Even knowing where it’s going, the film plays at a pleasant rhythm, the expected set-pieces all falling into place in a comforting rhythm. The actors know what they’re doing, the audience know what they’re doing, and the critique of the excesses of modern American society is carefully kept to a merest whisper as so not to give anyone any ideas. Going in Style is as average as any other Hollywood release these days, but it gets back most of its points on actor appeal and rhythm of execution.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) In retrospect, it seems almost amazing that such a restrained piece of social-issue cinema as Driving Miss Daisy would go on to win the Best Picture academy award. It is, after all, nothing much more than the story of a growing friendship between an elderly Jewish lady and her black chauffeur, spanning years from the fifties to the seventies. Arguably more about aging than race relations, Driving Miss Daisy is a surprisingly quiet movie. No big speeches, a few soft-spoken disagreements, unusually generous pacing (which is to say: slow) and plenty of character moments. Jessica Tandy won an Oscar for her role as the lady who learns better, while Morgan Freeman broke through the mainstream with his performance. While the result hasn’t aged very well (it’s curiously well-mannered), it’s still not a bad film by any means. Still, most will see it either as Oscar completionists or fans of Morgan Freeman.
(Crackle Streaming, April 2017) Some things are difficult to appreciate until they’re gone, and as a cinephile I do rather miss the steady stream of Asian-influenced martial arts action movies of the early 2000s. Following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (exploiting a trend a decade in the making through the home video market), American theatres received a steady stream of Asian action movies for a few years, and it was easy to believe that it would go on forever. Except that it didn’t, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find any of those movies at the multiplex. Interestingly, this may make then-overlooked movies more interesting to watch today. I’d given a miss to Unleashed at the time, but seeing it today probably makes it look a bit better than I would have felt back then. Not that the movie is particularly bad in itself: Jet Li stars as a gifted fighter raised like an attack dog by a London criminal, and Unleashed predictably follows what happens once he’s adopted by a kindly blind man and his daughter. You can write the rest of the story yourself and wouldn’t be far off from the result (Luc Besson actually scripted the movie and it’s a slightly above average script for him). But the point of the film (despite a performance by Morgan Freeman as the blind man) isn’t the story or the action as much as it’s the action sequences directed by Louis Leterrier and performed by Jet Li. The camera moves well, captures the action nicely and does allow for the grittiness of the premise to be counter-balanced by the comfort found by the hero with his new family. Bob Hoskins also turns up in a memorable loan shark role. While Unleashed isn’t a classic for the ages, it holds up generally well. Twelver years later, it also has the advantage of looking more original than it did back then.
(On DVD, March 2017) You would think that after twenty-five years, so-called “revisionism” would be absorbed, normalized, taken as granted and disappear into the background of a changed genre. But as Unforgiven continues to prove even today, revisionism can be an evergreen state of mind. Even now, the film’s treatment of violence in its western setting still rings as faintly blasphemous. As hurt women put a bounty on the head of an aggressor, as greedy killers converge on a town where the sheriff won’t tolerate guns carried by strangers, as a stained hero picks up his weapons in order to keep the family farm afloat, Unforgiven still has something special to offer. It plays with the codes of heroism (few characters are either all-good or all-bad), undermines who should be sympathetic and seems almost aghast when excessive violence does resolve problems. What makes it even more interesting is seeing Clint Eastwood take on the project both as a director and as a star—there’s a finality to his performance that stands as his closing statement on the genre. (This being said, this wouldn’t be the last time Eastwood would puncture his own myth—Grand Torino also has a few things to say about the toxicity of violence as he himself portrayed in a string of earlier movies.) Eastwood is terrific as a retired gunman reluctantly picking up his guns (and being thrown off his horse a few times for his troubles), while Morgan Freeman shows up in a rougher role than usual. Gene Hackman makes for a credible antagonist, unlikable although not purely evil in his goals of pacifying the Wild West by all means necessary. The result is absorbing even for viewers without natural or national affinities for the Western as a genre—Unforgiven manages to escape the western to become a great film of its own.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves twenty-five years after release (almost to the day) is a reminder about the evolution of the Hollywood blockbuster between the eighties and nineties. You can see in Robin Hood the elements that would make up the blockbuster tropes of the nineties, but you can also see the remnants of eighties-style filmmaking stiffness: The slightly-too-slow pacing, the quirks that don’t necessarily reinforce the film’s strengths, the unconscious irritation (such as the attempted-rape elements of the conclusion) the stiff studio staging, and so on. Director Kevin Reynolds doesn’t do a bad job with what he’s given, but it’s a film of its time. It’s good, but it’s not necessarily polished to a shine like latter blockbusters would be. It doesn’t help that Kevin Costner is off as Robin Hood: his stoic persona can’t accommodate the more light-hearted requirements of the role. On the other hand, Alan Rickman is fantastic as the all-out villainous antagonist, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio looks great at Maid Marian, and Morgan Freeman gets a pretty good role as an Islamic Moor stuck in the madness. Watching this film today, after the pop-culture clichés and most notably the 1993 full-length Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is strangeness multiplied. But then again I was in high school when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out—much of the pop culture of the time has stuck in my head to a degree that may not be as extreme for other viewers.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2015) Being slightly better than the average may be a compliment, but it isn’t much of one. It’s a wonder than anyone even remembers Kiss the Girls nearly twenty years later given how generic it can be at times: I may have reached my limit of how many psycho-killer-targets-young-women films I can stand, and Kiss the Girls is definitely an entirely average example of the sub-genre. At least the film can depend on Morgan Freeman (with darker hair and a bit more energy than today) and Ashley Judd to give the film a bit of interest, as well as a second-act escape that makes the film more interesting than most similar ones. Otherwise, the story meanders a bit, goes on for too long, manages to end in the most predictable fashion and doesn’t make itself memorable in any way. There’s a bit of competence in the cinematography, but much of Kiss the Girls is dull in the ways movies about quasi-magical serial killers can be, going over familiar ground in the most exasperating fashion. While Kiss the Girls gets a few extra points here and there, they’re not enough to make the film worth visiting.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) I’m genuinely perplexed at Evan Almighty, and not for any single one reason. I’m perplexed, for instance, at the film’s insistence at tying itself to Bruce Almighty through a tenuous set of coincidences (as in; a minor character of the first film becoming a congressman and seemingly changing personalities entirely –this makes more sense when you know that the script was developed as its own thing and was then retrofitted to become part of a series) I’m perplexed at the guts it must have taken to take an explicitly religious topic (as in; God telling the protagonist to build an ark, because a flood is coming) and turn it in an expensive special-effects-driven mainstream comedy film. I’m perplexed at the inclusion of political content in the story. I’m perplexed at the way the film builds itself up to a biblical catastrophe… only to deliver a relatively modest disaster. I’m perplexed at the practical scale of the film’s sets… and the moderate results delivered by the script. Thanks to Steve Carrell and director Tom Shadyac, Evan Almighty does have its share of comic moments, although it has just as many exasperating scenes and lulls as the film underlines everything two or three times. It doesn’t help that the story aims for profundity but falls into mediocrity: For all of its sanctimonious attitude, Evan Almighty forgets that audiences will forgive anything in an entertaining film, and condemn everything in a dull one. Evan Almighty has serious tonal issues (Wanda Sykes is relatively entertaining, but she seems to be playing in a different film than Morgan Freeman) and scatters itself in too many directions to be successful. The result is, as I’ve mentioned, perplexing: Why does this movie exist, and what exactly were they trying to accomplish with it?
(On TV, June 2015) I don’t often cry while watching movies, let alone slick soulless Hollywood comedies, but taking in a film about men dying of cancer days after attending a funeral for a friend who passed away from leukemia is asking for exceptions. So it is that, uncharacteristically enough, I felt a few manly tears roll down my cheeks during the last few moments of The Bucket List, as I started contemplating life, death, legacies and whether it’s even possible to go gently into the night. I really didn’t expect this from this film, which is as pre-packaged a glossy Hollywood comedy as it comes. But we are creatures of circumstances, and for a few minutes I was able to let go of my usual analytical mind and just feel purely sad. So it is that I’m not going to attempt to review The Bucket List itself: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson each play to their strengths, and the result just short-circuited my logical circuits. Given how deeply my departed friend was into movies (he was once nominated for a Genie screenwriting award), may this serves as a significant epitaph of sorts.
(Video on Demand, April 2015) For a film that disappeared without traces from North American theaters, Last Knights has pretty good production values, and is almost interesting enough to stand on its own as something more than another take on the “47 Ronin” legend. There’s a bit of a spark in the premise, which posits (I think) a future-medieval society that avoids historical precedent while allowing for an appealing multi-racial cast and new iconography. Unfortunately, they don’t do anything with that idea other than justify the pseudo-medieval setting (no ancient artifacts, no mixture of technologies and customs, no bearings on the plot). There are a few twists and turns in the first act, at least until the 47 Ronin parallels become obvious. After that, it’s an assault-the-fortress caper film with a too-long coda. Clive Owen is instantly credible as the protagonist, while Morgan Freeman has a decent turn as his commander. Less happily, the film struggles to become more than just another generic fantasy vehicle: the action is shot blandly and with far too many quick cuts, whereas the color palette of the cinematography is often limited to the point of dullness. There isn’t much here to excite or astonish, and so while Last Knights avoid the worst pitfalls of what could have been a Direct-to-Video effort, there isn’t much here to make it memorable.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) What a gloriously insane film this is. It’s not even worth being incensed about its use of the widely-debunked “using only 10% of our brains” nonsense, not when the counter keeps going up and the protagonist manages to gleefully ignore the laws of physics. Scarlett Johansson scores (after Her) another captivating performance in a film about the singularity, except that she’s the one going through it an attaining a post-human state by the time the credits roll. This being said, this is a film written and directed by Luc Besson, so it’s no use getting hung up on questions of coherence and subtlety hen he’s far more interested in marrying action-film kinetics with superhero flights of fancy. As a magical drug courses through our protagonist’s veins, the film makes less sense and becomes more fun, albeit in the “I can’t believe someone financed something this crazy” sense of fun. Compared to Transcendence, it’s got 10% of the brains but 100% more dynamism, and that “singularity for dummies” vibe definitely works to the film’s advantage. The directing moves fast (despite not being particularly well-directed –many of the so-called action scenes are a bit generic), and so does the story in an attempt not to have viewers think too hard about what’s happening. It reaches a joyously absurd conclusion with the secrets of the universe being made available on an USB key, but not before a trip back in time for a handshake with our progenitor. Whew! Morgan Freeman cashes an easy check as a scientist who just lectures and sees everything happening, but it’s really Scarlett Johansson who buffers her post-human action-heroine credentials in Lucy. As for the movie, it ain’t too smart, but it’s just crazy enough to work.
(On TV, December 2014) A good chunk of Jim Carrey’s early filmography from Ace Ventura to Liar, Liar (both also directed by Bruce Almighty’s Tom Shadyac) is made of high-concept comedies built around Carrey’s mannerisms,: Past 2003, Carrey would attempt more and more dramatic roles, and his return to comedy would either feel dated or aimed in a different direction. In this light, Bruce Almighty certainly feels like the last in a good Shadyac / Carrey line-up, offering Carrey the chance to play both mild-mannered everyday-man and unhinged rubber-faced maniac. The premise couldn’t be simpler: Following a terrible day, an ordinary man curses God and is given his powers and responsibilities to see if he would do better. As an excuse for Carrey to play with divine powers, it couldn’t be better: water parts, girlfriends get curvier and various religion-based puns rain down on the audience. It’s not hilarious, but it’s relatively amusing, almost entirely unthreatening despite the religious subject matter and Carrey gets one good reason to play the kind of comedy that made him famous. Morgan Freeman is perfect as God, while Steve Carrell has an early supporting role as a foil and Jennifer Aniston is cute but unremarkable as the perfunctory girlfriend. For all of the chuckles, though, there are few outright laughs, and the film’s insistence to remain respectfully grounded (all the way to third-act sermons) stops its absurdity from being more gripping. The results, in other words, don’t quite live up to the premise and the result settles for a middling average.
(Video on Demand, July 2014) Even as science fiction concepts make their way to the mainstream, I remain more and more convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the mindset that gravitates toward cord SF and the rest of the population. And here’s Transcendance to make the case, as it plays with heady concepts while reassuring audiences that technology is inherently evil. Sort-of updating the moral virtual panic of The Lawnmover Man for a new generation, Transcendence once again shows an uploaded mind turning evil: SF as an excuse for horror, and a film in which characters gravely say “we fear what we don’t understand”… before doing exactly that. The technical errors abound in this film, which is almost a relief given the silliness of the entire script (“hey, let’s set up a consciousness upload laboratory in an abandoned high-school gym”). There’s a lot to dislike in the structure of the film that spoils much of the ending early on, while the rest of the script doesn’t quite seem to understand where it’s going besides an apocalyptic conclusion. (The ending can sustain a multiplicity of interpretations, the most charitable being that our two lead characters are still working quietly at changing the world.) Director Wally Pfister has a good eye for ponderous images, but he’s really not as sure-footed during the action sequences, which play out as fairly silly on-screen. Johnny Depp once again plays Johnny Depp, but the film’s tight-lipped seriousness undercuts the eccentricity that is his biggest strengths as an actor. Meanwhile, as much as I like Rebecca Hall (to the point of watching nearly everything she’s been doing lately), she is definitely underused in this film, her usual brainy character being neutered into nothing much more than the damsel-in-distress. There’s also something strange about Morgan Freeman being in the film, but in a nearly-useless role. Other flaws abound, from the herky-jerky nature of technological innovation to risible terrorist antagonists to a climax that looks amazingly cheap considering the scope of the film so far. Transcendence is the kind of maddening film that holds a strong set of ideas, but can’t be bothered to actually do anything interesting with them… or take the leap forward that technological innovations can actually be, you know, beneficial without anyone turning into a creepy omniscient god-monster. I suspect that being a fairly knowledgeable SF reader is tainting my impression of Transcendence in ways that may not occur to the average moviegoer, but such is the baggage that I bring to the film.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) Hollywood is growing old alongside a significant proportion of its audience, so it’s not surprising to find more and more movies aimed at older audiences. Suffice to say that Last Vegas is at least better than The Expendables series is confronting how yesterday’s superstars can go gently into semi-retirement. Focusing on four older men coming to spend a wild weekend in Vegas to celebrate one of their own’s nuptials to a (much) younger woman, Last Vegas soon turns to debauchery of a gentle kind, winking in The Hangover‘s direction without quite committing to such outrageousness. It’s sort-of-hypocritical to see stars like Michael Douglas and Robert de Niro (both of whom married significantly younger women) espouse the rightness of marrying age-appropriately, but when the object of their affection is the astonishingly good-looking Mary Steenburgen (still seven years their junior, one notes), it’s hard to complain that much. It helps that the film has a middle-of-the-road comic sensibility, amusing without being outrageous, and carefully pacing its development to gently lull viewers to a surprise-free climax. Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman provide able supporting performances in filling an aging brat-pack. De Niro sort-of reprises his tough-guy persona (De Niro scholars are already talking about the self-referential second half of his career), Douglas oozes a slightly-oily charm, Kline does fine comic work, while Freeman is fun just being Freeman. Director Jon Turteltaub faithfully directs a decently-structured but timid script, and Vegas’s attractions do the rest. Last Vegas doesn’t amount to much, and that’s probably the point: this is mass-market comedy aiming older, and there’s no need to be bold or outrageous when nostalgia and gentle chuckles will keep the target audience happy. So it goes that the film is light entertainment, almost instantly forgettable but decently pleasant while it plays.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) For all of the nice things I have to say about Oblivion, there’s something just… off in the way it comes together. The first few minutes don’t quite establish the required suspension of disbelief required for it to work smoothly: The visuals it presents don’t make a lot of sense and the pandering to modern lowest-denominator audiences seems blatant (let’s see: Yankees cap, Football stadium, dog, motorcycle and a cabin in the woods. Yup, just one regular guy, no wacky sci-fi to see here…) For viewers used to prose science-fiction Oblivion seems to pivot entirely on a familiar cognitive breakthrough structure, and the way it self-importantly reveals its secrets is a bit annoying, as if it expected audience’s minds to be blown apart by fairly obvious reveals. The plot doesn’t quite seem to hold together the longer you look at it, and the visuals it shows (combining a ruined New York with what looks like epochal landscape alteration) are so nonsensical as to make anyone’s head hurt. But let’s focus on the positive for a moment: It’s a science-fiction film that’s not explicitly based on existing intellectual properties, it features relatively original imagery (the “house in the clouds” is particularly nice) and it has the willingness to combine familiar tropes into a somewhat cohesive whole. For writer/director Joseph Kosinski, it’s certainly a step up from the pretty-but-vapid Tron: Legacy. Tom Cruise is overbearingly Tom Cruise-ish in the lead role (see “Yankees cap, football, motorcycle” above), but the supporting performances by Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko bring a bit of balance in the film. While there’s little that’s objectionably wrong in Oblivion, it doesn’t click either, and that’s a more crucial problem in SF movies than in other genres due to the required suspension of disbelief. While it certainly looks nice and feels more original than yet another sequel of a comic-book movie adaptation, it doesn’t seem to have enough heft to it, and given the nature of the film’s revelation it’s hard imagining watching this a second time for fun.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) For everyone who thought that overly patriotic high-concept action movies had gone out with the nineties, the good news is that Olympus Has Fallen doesn’t merely exist, but is the first of two “White House taken over by terrorists” films released in 2013. We’ve come a long way from 9/11 when such big-budget high-concept action movies can be released widely, and that’s a good thing. Whether the films are any good is another subject entirely, and watching Olympus Has Fallen, it’s clear that while it occasionally hits its mark, it doesn’t quite understand part of what made those 90s action movies so enjoyable. In a few words: PG-13 action over R-rated violence. Olympus Has Fallen, rated R, seems overly violent, profane and humorless for what is supposed to be popcorn entertainment in the Die Hard mold. It tries to be broadly amusing with funny quips and overdone action set-pieces, but then it plasters its dialogue with useless profanity and revels in showing gory violence (some of which perpetrated gleefully by the so-called hero). The result can’t very well be watched with the kind of carefree fun that PG-13 action films usually create: you’re always on guard for the next excursion in violence and gratuitous language. It doesn’t help that Olympus Has Fallen has little wit, charm or grace: Gerald Butler is merely OK as the lone operator chasing down the terrorists within the White House –anyone else could have done just as well. Morgan Freeman sleepwalks through another presidential role, and while it’s good to see Angela Bassett get another role, this one won’t leave any lasting impression. Director Antoine Fuqua is a seasoned veteran who knows how to put together an action scene, but he seems hampered by sub-standard CGI work (some of the C-130 gunship sequences look unfinished) and a script that never exceeds the perfunctory and seems to forget how to tie up (or even acknowledge) loose ends. Olympus Has Fallen is watchable, but it’s not hard to complain about various elements that could have been improved to produce a better film. Now let’s see if White House Down does any better… [January 2014: Yes, White House Down is quite a bit better.]