(On Cable TV, December 2015) Sometimes, it’s tempting to go back in time, grab a particular filmmaker by the shoulder and say “This project you’re thinking about? Forget it. It’s not worth it.” Why anyone would want to make another movie about scientists finding ways to bring back the dead to life is beyond me: it’s not as if we don’t know what’s coming, and Flatliners still looms large as the flawed but definitive statement in this area. I’m sure that there’s something interesting left to say about resurrection and demonic possession, but The Lazarus Effect is not the film that will achieve that: It’s exceptionally formulaic, uninterested in any kind of rigor and not particularly well-executed on a moment-to-moment basis. There are no surprises and almost nothing to look forward to. At best, there’s something to be said about seeing young capable actors such as Olivia Wilde and Donald Glover; alas, they are stuck in a basement-grade horror movie of the kind most often seen as filler on cable TV late-night schedules. The plot is pointlessly dull, with its most promising edges shaved away to irrelevance by the end of the film. There’s something particularly exasperating in the way the resurrected (predictably) turns evil, but also comes back with telepathy, telekinesis, super-strength and whatever other unfair advantages a psycho-killer possessed by a demon may have. The Lazarus Effect is just not very interesting, and feels too long even under 90 minutes. If it wasn’t worth making, it’s certainly not worth watching.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) It’s easy to see why The Longest Week would annoy many of its viewers. It has, after all, a pampered trust-fund protagonist (played by Jason Bateman, in a bit of a stretch from his usual everyman persona) who ends up learning about life during a week in which he’s cut off from his allowance. Bereft of useful skills, housing, emergency money or lasting friendships, he ends up pursuing a woman despite his friend’s obvious attraction for her. “What a cad!” seems to be the refrain, and it’s easy to be exasperated by this affluent-first-world-problems film. It’s tough to sympathise with such a protagonist, and even tougher to actually care when he behaves so badly. This being said, the movie isn’t as exasperating as the preceding may suggest: Droll narration bolsters the movie almost as much as the raw charm of Bateman and Olivia Wilde as the love interest. The slight dialogue and scattered laughs mean that even if this romantic comedy fails, it fails to the generally amiable level of average romantic comedies –which is to say that you don’t have too bad of a time watching it. The Longest Week is a bit smug and precious and pretentious, but it’s charming in its own one-percenter-narcissistic-Manhattanite way, which is quite a bit more than you’d think.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) I like discovering small-scale movies lurking in the late-night schedules of specialized cable channels. You can often end up with competent fare such as Butter, a cynical comedy about Midwestern alienation, resentment and butter carving. It’s not exactly a hidden gem featuring unknown actors: Jennifer Garner stars as a driven housewife, while Olivia Wilde plays a vengeful stripper and Hugh Jackman shows up for a small but entirely ridiculous role. The story revolves around a woman taking up butter carving at a very competitive level after her husband’s retirement, only to be challenged by a young black girl with unusual natural talent for the craft. Butter comes up decently when it’s most focused on the silliness of its characters given the low stakes surrounding them. (Wilde’s character is preposterous, but despite her dodgy motivations the film simply feels funnier when she’s on-screen.) There’s a bit of heart alongside the cynicism (most notably when Rob Corddry opens up with his foster daughter), but enough gags here and there to justify the time. Butter does miss a number of its targets: There are obvious parallels here with the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination process, but they end up being more distracting than amusing. The film does take place in a slightly-altered comic reality when characters often behave in ways more outrageous than realistic, and it may have been interesting to see the script commit even more broadly to this kind of absurdity. Still, it’s tough to begrudge such a modest comedy, especially given the various pointed barbs it’s willing to feature.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) I’m favourably pre-disposed toward films about writing and writers, but even with this added sympathy, there are many ways in which The Words doesn’t quite work as well as it could. The interweaving of stories in which a successful author tells us about a young writer hearing about another young author’s life is intriguing, but the conclusion seems to spring forward at about thirty second’s notice, with a scarcity of details at the upper level. The sudden appearance of the end “directed by” card is a disappointment, as so much of the story seems unfinished. More holes emerge the longer one thinks about the film. I also had a few problems with the putative protagonist of the film, ably played by Bradley Cooper: What kind of idiot calling himself a writer works exclusively for years on a single literary manuscript in New York City? Who is incurious enough not to investigate a literate manuscript from post-War France when so many great writers lived there at the time? Why even call yourself a “writer” when there’s so little hesitation in plagiarizing so thoroughly? Even allowing The Words those premises as given (and adding the improbability of a manuscript remaining undiscovered for decades) and appreciating the careful way in which the film is constructed doesn’t necessarily make the film a success considering its cast. Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde’s characters remain half-developed mysteries, unbalancing the film’s core of interest to its first fictional level. Despite the deliberate ambiguity at the very end of the film, The Words seems half-finished, a decent film petering out in a wet whisper of a conclusion. Despite wanting to like the film and everyone involved in it, it ends up being a bit of a dud. A well-made, respectable, often-likable dud, but a dud nonetheless.
(In theaters, July 2011) There’s no real reason to dislike the western/Science Fiction hybrid Cowboys & Aliens, but no real reason to love it either. It plays surprisingly straight, what with Daniel Craig and Harrison out-gruffing each other on the way to rid the Earth of an alien menace. The SF elements are weak (Mining gold? Really? Did they miss all the asteroids on their way here?), the action sequence lack a certain oomph and the film seems happy just delivering the goods in more or less the same way the audience expects. Given that even competence is sometimes missing from Hollywood blockbuster, the acknowledgement that Cowboys & Aliens does deliver on its promises should be seen as a compliment. (If nothing else, you do get both Cowboys and Aliens. Happy?) The problem is that there’s little more to director Jon Favreau’s film. After a thorny first act, everything reverts to unthreatening adventure with a perfunctory finale and the self-simplification of the script is particularly harmful to its SF elements: There’s little rhyme or reason to the aliens’ capabilities except for dramatic effect, and at the point it becomes harder for the viewer to actually form expectations or build any kind of suspense if narrative rabbits are going to be taken out of various orifices. Interestingly enough, some of the better works comes from supporting actors: Sam Rockwell is once again unrecognizable in an atypical role far from his better-known characters; Adam Beach is earnest and sympathetic; whereas Olivia Wilde manages to carry an element of ethereal difference to her character beyond simply looking pretty. Oh, Cowboys & Aliens plays well and satisfies base expectations. There’s just a nagging feeling that the film could have been just a little bit more…