(On Cable TV, October 2018) Frankly, I expected much worse from Wonder after seeing its rather misleading trailer. To believe the coming attraction, we have to brace ourselves for an entire film’s worth of seeing a facially disfigured boy trying to fit at a new school. But, as we know, trailers lie—or at least misdirect, because even if the film is about a facially disfigured boy’s adventures in fitting at his new school, it’s also quite a bit more than that, and in this case the subplots are what keeps the film interesting beyond its predictable premise. Wonder soon becomes about the boy’s entire family as they, too, experience that first year in school in their own way. There’s nothing truly earth-shattering here, and one of the mildest surprises of the film is how easy it goes on the inevitable scenes of cruelty and abuse by the boy’s schoolmates. The result is one of relief, as the film remains rather gentle and sympathetic in its approach. Jacob Tremblay continues to impress in the lead role, while other notables such as Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin and Julia Roberts take supporting roles in a youth-focused film. As a result, Wonder remains an enjoyable film … even for jaded curmudgeonly critics such as myself.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I may be overdosing on criminal comedies featuring idiots, explaining my tepid reaction to Masterminds. On paper, it does sound promising: What if an idiot working for an armoured car company found a way to steal a considerable amount of money … only to be stalked and targeted by equally idiotic accomplices? Throw in a cast including such notables a Zach Gallifinakis, Owen Wilson, Kirsten Wiig, Leslie Jones or Kate McKinnon and you’ve got the making of a good-enough comedy. But it takes more than comedians and a premise to make a film, and as Masterminds lurches from one mildly amusing set-piece to another, there’s a feeling that director Jared Hess is up to the kinds of tricks that made his previous films (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos) so divisive. Masterminds makes the classic blunder of keeping an unfunny gag running for as long as possible, sapping audience goodwill at periodic intervals. There are clearly attempts at making something amusing in this film, and some of them even succeed. But the overall result is not particularly funny, and the criminal plot of the film really isn’t strong enough to pick up the slack. Owen Wilson seems a bit lost in a role that robs him of his usual genial nature, and Wiig is up to more or less the same kind of awkward comedy that either works or not. This being said, Gallifinakis is not bad, and comic-chameleon Kate McKinnon continues her prodigious streak of disappearing in the roles she’s given. Masterminds doesn’t exactly deserve a spot on worst-movie list, but it certainly disappoints.
(In French, On TV, January 2017) I’m more a cat person, so while I can appreciate the basic concept of Marley & Me (“A family’s life as seen through the lifetime of a dog”) as clever, I wasn’t brought to tears by the inevitable ending as much as satisfied that the story had been neatly tied up. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston star at the initially young couple that adopts a dog and then starts a family, experience setbacks, moves across the country and eventually settle into middle age while badly behaved Marley grows old. The stakes are very personal, and much of the film consists of episodes in the life of the protagonist, trying to balance family life and professional opportunities. The dog becomes progressively less important during the movie, but never quite goes away. Wilson slightly tones down his usual hangdog persona (a requirement of the character, who’s supposed to be universally relatable) and the result is a bit duller than expected. Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston is Jennifer Aniston, which is to say innocuously likable but blander than necessary. More successful are minor roles for Alan Arkin (as a crusty newspaper editor) and Kathleen Turner (as a dog trainer). Otherwise, Marley & Me is cleanly shot, stylistically ordinary (except for a frantic year-in-the-life sequence that drags a bit too long) and not entirely manipulative despite the subject matter, which is already quite a bit better than expected. But, as I said, I’m a cat person.
(TMN-Go Streaming, September 2016) As far as spy comedies go, I Spy is almost exactly what it claims to be: Mismatched protagonists (Owen Wilson as a borderline-incompetent spy, Eddie Murphy as an arrogant motormouth boxer pressed in covert service), a handful of action sequences, a serviceable plot meant to string along the comic sequences and a somewhat generic East-European setting. It goes through the motion of its buddy comedy/spy movie hybrid plot, features some nice scenery and lets its lead actors do whatever they want in roles closely aligned with their persona. Wilson is fine and almost unremarkable, whereas Murphy does a little better by virtue of a showier role—his ringside introduction is remarkably effective, for instance. Otherwise, there isn’t much to say about the plot (which features an invisible super-plane parked in the middle of a city) nor the supporting character. I’m sort of amazed that I managed to miss it during all those years, and that I never realized that it was so close in tone and subject matter to Bad Company, which also came out at more or less the same time. I Spy is by no means a classic, but it’s decently entertaining once you get past the dumb script, and you even get one or two flashes of classic Eddie Murphy.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) I have accumulated some delays in reviewing movies, and now that I sit down to write about You, Me and Dupree, it hasn’t been more than two months since I’ve seen it and already crucial bits are gone from my memory. It’s definitely about a newly-married couple and Dupree, a hugely annoying friend of the groom. There are certainly many scene in which the new bride (Kate Hudson) is annoyed at the interloper (Owen Wilson) and how her husband (Matt Dillon) can’t seem bothered to drive him away. I can at least recall a scene in which the living room catches fire. Michael Douglas shows up as an imposing father-in-law to glower at our protagonist, and that’s bad for him. But then it predictably turns sad as Dupree is underlined as a colossal screw-up who has no friends and no home and ends up on a bench in the rain. But don’t worry! Dupree somehow redeems himself (or maybe it’s pity from the main characters—My memory doesn’t reach in that much detail) and it all chugs along to a happy ending. I don’t recall the film as being particularly bad or good, nor offensive or unpleasant. On the other hand, it’s not registering as particularly memorable either, and that’s its own issue. Perhaps more noteworthy now for being the first feature film for the Russo Brothers (who would then go on to help two well-received Captain America movies), You, Me and Dupree is the kind of wholly unremarkable comedies to emerge from the studio system in the 2000s. They’re not awful … but they can be a challenge to remember even a short while after the ending credits.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I hadn’t seen a screwball comedy in a long while, and veteran writer/director Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way is unapologetic about how it tries to re-create the confused romantic farces of earlier film eras. Here we have an adulterous theatre director, his wife (an actress), their friend (an actor), an escort changed by their meeting, the worst psychiatrist even, a private detective, a lonely judge … clashing together in weird and ridiculous ways. The film gradually builds it set pieces, goofs along its equally goofy characters, leaves the actors to do their best and lets the chaos take over. What’s unfortunate is that the film keeps its best set pieces (the restaurant clash) for the middle, leading to a curiously lacklustre ending. Still, the film is fun, and the surprising number of recognizable actors showing up in minor roles only adds to the film’s unpredictability. Owen Wilson is fine as the lead director, with Kathryn Hawn, Rhys Ifan and Imogen Poots holding up their end of the plot. Surprisingly enough, queen-of-blandness Jennifer Aniston also turns in a thoroughly despicable performance. She’s Funny That Way’s pacing is zippy, the misunderstandings are numerous, the dialogue relatively interesting and a stuffed squirrel even shows up as a plot point. I’m not sure I can ask for much more.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2016) There’s not really any way to say this nicely, so let’s get it out of the way first: No Escape may not necessarily be a xenophobic film by xenophobic people, but wow does it play the xenophobia card heavily. What is problematic here is not a film in which an innocent American family finds itself stuck in a popular uprising hours after arriving in an anonymous Southeast Asian country. It’s a film in which the family seems to be facing hordes of anonymous foreigners that are specifically targeting them for violent rape and death. Even worse: Help usually comes from other foreigners, or natives that are in service to foreigners in a film. It’s hard to avoid a bit of unease at the way the film makes its points—especially in recognizing that some sequences work well exactly because of the way the film uses faceless hordes of bloodthirsty opponents. Amusingly enough, part of it probably isn’t due to intentional racism as much as a genre tool mismatch. Writer/Director John Erick Dowdle has a few well-received horror films to his credit, so it’s worth noting that some of No Escape’s best moments (an escape from a hotel under siege, soon followed by an escape from a bombed-out office) are straight out of zombie horror filmmaking. The equivalence of foreigners to zombies is disturbing, but that it works at a basic level may be most disturbing of all. Elsewhere in the movie, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell’s performances are sympathetic enough to paper over thinly written character and gain them some sympathy as parents in a horrifying situation. (The kids are also very good and believable as kids.) Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan shows up in a role that should be more substantial but somehow isn’t. No Escape does show a basic ability at presenting thrills and chills, but it would be so much better had it taken more care with its depiction of foreign characters. Then, at least, we’d stop feeling guilty for whatever qualities the film has.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) You would think that a film written and directed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, starring no less than Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, would somehow ends up being quite a bit better than Are You Here. It’s not that the film is a complete bore: In between Owen’s turn as a womanizing, stoner weatherman and various odd bits and pieces of comedy, there’s enough here to keep our interest… but somehow it doesn’t add up to something as good as could be expected. Galifianakis is a bit annoying, some of the subplots get tiresome and the ending is pure Weiner-enigma, leaving loose ends all over the place. There is also a surprising amount of nudity for a film that didn’t need as much of it. Ultimately, Are you Here is too scattered to make any impression; it comes softly, goes without fuss and disappears.
(Video on Demand, April 2015) “Chinatown meets The Big Lebowski” is an imperfect and unfair way of describing Inherent Vice, but it’s better than most. As a thriller set in the drug-addled subcultures of 1970s Los Angeles, featuring a protagonist not overly concerned with the trappings of the Private Investigator lifestyle, this is an investigation that doesn’t necessarily go to expected places, each elliptical scene not entirely connected to the previous one. It can be heartbreaking, hilarious, confusing and fascinating in rapid succession, floating above its own plot in a haze of altered perceptions. If, from this summary, you’re getting the idea that this is a challenging film that doesn’t really want to be seen conventionally, you’re right. But it is, after all, a Paul T. Anderson film, and so it’s best approached as an experience than a story. Fortunately, there are a few fantastic moments: Martin Short has a hilarious small role as a drugged-up dentist, there is a raw long single-shot love scene that’s a thing of wonder, and the recreation of 1970s Los Angeles is credible. But the film does annoy as much as it rewards: there are more than a few lengths, the scenes aren’t necessarily accessible, the plot gets overly complex (the way it flouts genre conventions doesn’t help) and the use of a few actors rings falsely at time (Owen Wilson in a dramatic role, as unfair as it sounds, is a bit of a stretch) Inherent Vice may not be to everyone’s liking, but there are enough great moments here and there to warrant a viewing even for those who may not be entirely enthusiastic about Anderson’s films.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Woody Allen’s “European capitals” tour continues to please, as romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris goes to the French capital for a bit of nostalgic introspection and historical comedy. As a Hollywood screenwriter with a fondness for the classics discovers that he can time-travel back to the nineteen-twenties, writer/director Allen turn in a film that appear effortlessly charming and quite a bit wise about the pernicious appeal of excessive nostalgia. Owen Wilson is his own unique self as the protagonist: Midnight in Paris would have been completely different with another actor, as Wilson’s hang-dog charm and wide-eyes befuddlement makes him a perfect match for the material. Otherwise, the performances to highlight are those in which a few actors get to play with historical figures; Kathy Bates is riveting as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll is instantly compelling as Ernest Hemingway. As for the rest of the picture, well, it’s refreshingly mum about the time-traveling rationale, well-photographed (especially during its credit sequence, which shows us much of picturesque Paris in three-and-a-half minutes), generally amiable and maybe even untouchable for the kind of low-key comedy it aims to be. Compared to Allen’s latest films, Midnight in Paris is even a bit more hopeful and comforting in its resolution. (Well, except for the detective stuck in Versailles. Poor guy.)
(On-demand Video, April 2012) I’m never too sure whether I should be annoyed or relieved when mainstream Hollywood comedies end up neutering their daring premises with innocuous plot developments. Audiences don’t like to be unnerved when they’re supposed to be laughing, and I suppose that I’m no exception. Nonetheless, there’s something maddening in seeing a film about married couples agreeing to mutual indiscretion racing to a conclusion when nothing really happened. (Actually, it may be best to ignore the fact that the one woman who did something, albeit briefly, ends up punished by a car crash that ends up not much more than a plot point for her husband’s emotional growth. But such is the way of Hollywood, and this includes the emotionally-retarded male protagonists who are supposed to earn our sympathy. The gender politics here aren’t particularly even-handed here, which is keeping in mind the target audience of the film.) Still, Hall Pass has a number of laughs in reserve, especially when the protagonists can’t even begin to imagine how to take advantage of the freedom they’ve bargained for themselves. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who, in-between this film, Horrible Bosses and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, is carving himself a bit of a niche as a sex-obsessed protagonist) are both as charming as they can be in characters who are barely emotionally adults, although it’s Richard Jenkins who gets the biggest laughs in short appearances as an even older and less mature professional bachelor. The problem is that by ultimately playing it safe, Hall Pass doesn’t do anything that warrants any lasting attention. Despite a few out-of-place graphic gags, it’s a disposable comedy destined to the bargain bin.
(On cable TV, April 2012) Watching well-made romantic comedies is so effortless that making them seems easy… and then you find one that doesn’t quite work as well as it could. On the surface, How Do You Know isn’t a hard movie to like: It has four good actors in the lead (Paul Rudd is charming as the co-protagonist and Owen Wilson is almost hilarious as a clueless baseball player but the film’s highlight is that Reese Witherspoon is aging really well –I can’t recall her looking any better), appealing characters, quirky details, a few big laughs and a somewhat witty script. Shot to glossy perfection in the streets of Washington DC, it’s the kind of film fully steeped in movie-magic, fit to send audiences in a feel-good trance. And yet… it never quite clicks. The dialogues, even from the first few scenes, seem willfully scattered. The scenes go on for longer than they should, and no amount of character charm nor scene-setting can excuse the tepid rhythm. While How Do You Know earns a few credits for avoiding the more obvious clichés of romantic comedies, it doesn’t quite replace those clichés with anything remarkably compelling. The look at the struggles of an aging female athlete seems eclipsed by the look at the idiocy of an aging male athlete, while the corporate malfeasance plot doesn’t quite boil at any point in the story. It all amount to nothing much; at best, a pleasantly eccentric but forgettable romance. But then, looking up the film’s production information, you find out that it cost $120 million, almost half of which was spent on five key salaries… and the film goes from unobjectionable to incomprehensible. Really, writer/director James L. Brooks? Did you really need Jack Nicholson to play his same shtick for that amount of money? How Do You Know feels like the kind of low-budget romance given to hungry up-and-coming directors for a quick release a modest box-office… not blockbuster budgets and massive audiences: there’s nothing here to warrant more attention. No amount of “Eh, it was all right” can recoup those losses.
(In theaters, October 2001) Some comedies act a lot like mirrors, reflecting to us our own attitudes toward the film. If, say, you expect Zoolander to be dumb, well, it will be. If you expect it to be clever, it’ll be clever. It’s one of those stupid comedies by clever people, so deeper levels of comedy are available if ever the surface slapstick isn’t for you. As a spoof of the modeling world, it certainly reaches its target with the character of vacuous Derek Zoolander. Ben Stiller is as good as always as an actor and his directing skills are adequate for the job. A ton of cameos complete the fun, the best one of the bunch probably being David Bowie (Tam-tam-tadam-tam!) There are a few lengthier moments in the second half as the plot dynamics are advanced. (Of course, the best laughs come in the throwaway pieces in the first half.) Not a memorable film, but one that’ll lift your spirits on a depressing day. As long as you allow it to do so.