(On Cable TV, March 2016) The disaster movie will never die. Indeed, buoyed by advances in special-effects technology, it will rise again and again, more overblown and chaotic than ever before. If you thought that 2012’s earthquake sequences were as good that they were likely to get, prepare to be amazed by San Andreas’s wide-screen mayhem as Los Angeles and then San Francisco gets thoroughly trashed by a number of unimaginably powerful earthquakes. Dwayne Johnson anchors the film as its muscular protagonist, equally able to commandeer a helicopter for personal gain as he is to fly a small plane and provide first-aid. All of which turn out to be helpful when comes the time to go rescue his daughter from the elements. San Andreas is, to put it bluntly, a fairly dumb movie: The laws of physics are ignored, logic is downplayed, characters a mere plot puppets and nothing is as important as the CGI destruction shown on-screen. Even for a blunt disaster movie, it sometimes overplays its hand: Paul Giamatti does his best as the voice of exposition, while Alexandra Daddario is overexposed in centre-frame as a curvaceous object of desire. (I wouldn’t normally complain, except that in this case, there’s something extra-blatant in the way the movie shows her off and her character is supposed to be a teenager. Also, I’m getting old.) On the other hand, San Andreas is a cunning movie: Everything is engineered for the wow-factor, from some spectacular moments in which major California cities are torn apart to showcase sequences in which a character runs (in a single long shot) to escape to a building’s roof while skyscrapers are toppling all around downtown LA. It takes more than a little ingenuity to cram that much spectacle in a single film, and both the screenwriter Carlton Cuse and director Brad Peyton have to be congratulated (if that’s the right word) for delivering a film so committed to the base ideals of a disaster film. While the result may not be respectable, it springs to mind as a demo disc to show off any new home theatre improvement.
(On DVD, June 2013) The beauty with quasi-cult films aimed at specific audience is that once in a while you are the target audience. So it is that John Dies at the End blends science-fiction/horror influences with an irreverent lack of respect for otherworldly terrors, two very sympathetic protagonists and a dynamic blend of quick pacing and terrific direction. Writer/director Don Coscarelli nails the quirky tone of David Wong’s source novel and delivers a near-unclassifiable film that nonetheless plays beautifully to genre audiences. Often crude and unsubtle, John Dies at the End is nonetheless fairly sophisticated in the way it dares audiences to follow along a dense thicket of ideas, plot developments, dramatic turns and throwaway jokes. It’s a film that moves quickly and doesn’t stop for people to catch up. The first half is a dizzying accumulation of strangeness, while the second gets down to the sometimes fastidious task of explaining the plot and tying up loose ends. Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are good choices for the lead roles, but Paul Giamatti is near-perfect at the skeptical journalist hearing their story. Best of all, perhaps, for fans of the novel is how the film is only a partial adaptation: the second half of the book is nearly missing from the film, an important half of the plot having been skillfully amputated. This gives enough space for an already-madcap accumulation of details in the film, and leaves a pleasant surprise to fans of the film wishing to read the book.
(On-demand video, November 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals and as such I’m pretty happy with Rock of Ages, which grabs eighties-rock songs and re-shapes them into a straightforward musical about finding love and success in 1987 Hollywood. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta do well as the dull young couple anchoring the story, but the rest of the cast shines. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as an aging rock-will-never-die club owner, Paul Giamatti is perfect as a slimy impresario and Catherine Zeta-Jones is amusing as a socialite with a revealing past. Still, they’re not the best of what Rock of Ages has to offer: Russell Brand steals his scenes with lines that sound tailor-made for his personae but even he takes a step back whenever Tom Cruise chews the scenery as rock god Stacee Jaxx. Cruise-as-Jaxx transposes and perverts his movie-star status into a related realm, and if Cruise seems more accomplished than unleashed as a self-destructing icon, it’s still a great performance in a pivotal role. Music-wise, Rock of Ages will have you humming “I Wanna Rock”, “Wanted Dead or Alive” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” (among others) for days, even though the movie’s soundtrack may not compare to the original versions of the songs. I’m told that the movie’s plot is considerably happier and simpler than the original musical, (although it keeps the vexing two-act structure leading to a mid-movie lull) but director Adam Shankman’s adaptation is also able to weave song medleys around characters doing their own things separately –at best, it’s an exhilarating example of the creative freedom offered by well-produced cinema. While Rock of Ages may be a fluffy fantasy loosely connected to the anthem-rock era, it’s bouncy and fun and just as entertaining as it wants to be. But I did say that I’m a forgiving fan of movie musicals.
(On DVD, January 2012) Unabashedly eccentric, comic fantasy Cold Souls teeters at the edge of an entertaining film without quite making the leap from oddity to success. Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti as a burnt-out actor trying to enliven his life. The solution goes through a new medical procedure that extracts his soul for storage. Never mind the yadda-yadda premise; Cold Souls tries for an off-beat fantastic tone that never quite gels, in part because it’s so subtle: The soul remains undefined, the effect of its removal are insignificant to the point of being unnoticeable and you have to be patient before the story gets underway. After a while, we find ourselves deep into international soul-trafficking as Giamatti desperately tries to get his own soul back after it’s been implanted into a Russian soap-opera actress. Odd, weird, off-beat, in the tradition of Eternal Sunshine of the Eternal Mind or Being John Malkovich, but never quite the intriguing fantasy it could have been. Giamatti is, fortunately, quite good as Giamatti. Some of the design work is decent, and there are a few scenes that charm simply because they seem so unlikely. Nonetheless, Cold Souls seems a bit too restrained, too subtle to be memorable. The DVD contains one mildly-interesting design featurette, and half a dozen forgettable deleted scenes.
(In theaters, October 2011) As with many backroom political thrillers, The Ides of March tells the story of how a young political wunderkind loses his illusions while working for a star candidate. If you’ve read Joe Klein/Anonymous’s Primary Colors or seen 1996’s City Hall, you have a rough idea of how this works. But familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as the similitudes taper off toward the end, and the result is a convincing look at the way American politics can work. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of a genius-level political operative makes for a sympathetic hero, and he more than holds his own against such notables as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. (It’s one of the film’s interesting choices to use a star Clooney as a superstar candidate, character-actor darlings Hoffman and Giamatti as seasoned professionals and Gosling as an up-and-comer –a good example of Hollywood typecasting working as casting.) Perhaps the best thing about The Ides of March is its pitch-perfect portrayal of the political process at the primary stage –the ground-level organizing, the dirty tricks, the high-level negotiations in dismal settings. Director Clooney does a fine job as portraying the grey nature of mid-March winter in Cincinnati, and the film quickly becomes a must-see for American political junkies, who won’t cringe too much at the film’s faithfulness to reality as we know it. It almost goes without saying that, despite being loosely based on a play loosely based on the Howard Dean campaign, The Ides of March is best interpreted as a what-if rather than an allegory of anything that really happened recently: despite the political in-jokes, if best to appreciate the actors working as character rather than caricatures. It’s unclear whether the film will have much of a wide appeal beyond left-leaning politicos: like many political thrillers, it ends at a funeral, but unlike many it doesn’t feature a single raised gun, conspiracy or assassination attempt. It’s this nominal adherence to a plausible version of reality (with a side-order of capable performances) that makes The Ides of March works well despite familiar ideas and a low-key presentation. Sometimes, you don’t need car chases and explosions to have a thrilling time.
(On DVD, April 2011) It’s not as if I deliberately waited ten years to see the Planet of the Apes remake, but considering that there was no reason for this “re-imagining” to exist and how savaged the film was upon its release, it’s not as if there was any reason to see it sooner. No reason except filling up a spot on Tim Burton’s filmography, maybe: For all of his duds, Burton can usually be relied upon to present an original vision on-screen. Alas, what ends up on the screen in Planet of the Apes feels like a cheap and dumb cardboard fantasy rather than a fully-developed universe. The script itself has a number of problems, from a lack of complexity to ideas that were best abandoned in fifties Science-Fiction. But it’s in the presentation of the apes that the film stumbles into the uncanny valley, with characters that sometimes look fine, sometimes look wrong and so never completely convince. (I still don’t know what it means that I could recognize Paul Giamatti in full ape makeup) The ape social system (and attendant human slavery) feels like a fable rather than a convincing concept, and the by-the-numbers nature of the film’s plotting is both convenient (apes can talk but they never learned how to swim! What luck!) and numbing. As if that wasn’t enough, Planet of the Apes ends with an epilogue that means to evoke chills in the Twilight Zone tradition, but only ends up sealing the film’s nonsensical lack of appeal. Ten years later, well, there’s not much left in the remake: It may have been the tenth-grossing film of 2001, but the original still remains the cultural reference. Anyone who hasn’t yet seen this one shouldn’t be in any hurry to do so.
(In theatres, January 2011) As much as I like supporting Canadian Content (and there’s nothing more CanCon than an adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s last novel, filmed and set in Montréal), there’s something just subtly off about Barney’s Version. It’s an accumulation of small annoyances that damage the film, from a scatter-shot episodic narrative to flat performances to overly sentimental moments. I’ll be the first to note that presenting forty years of a man’s life on-screen isn’t the simplest screenwriting challenge: As an adaptation of a dense and thick novel, you can perceptibly feel the loose threads running over everywhere and be frustrated at the amount of extra detail missing from the screen. That’ll explain the way the film doesn’t quite seem to hang together. While Barney’s Version revolves around Paul Giamatti’s exceptional lead performance and Dustin Hoffman’s unrecognizable turn as his father, actors surrounding them are far less credible. Most of the female characters seem played either without subtlety (I once thought I could watch Minnie Driver all day, but her one-note shrill performance tested that assumption) or without affect (Rosamund Pike, sedated throughout): even assuming that the film is from Barney’s subjective perspective isn’t enough to excuse it. Humorous in the details and tragic in the whole, Barney’s Version runs off in all kinds of directions, and it’s not in its nature to finish neatly with a big finale. It’s best, then, to appreciate its small quirky moments, its Montréal atmosphere and the occasional Denys Arcand cameo. It is, as is the case with so many middle-of-the-road Canadian dramas, amiable but unremarkable. Barney’s Version is good enough to make Canadian audiences feel better about seeing it, but it’s not worth much commentary otherwise.
(In theaters, April 2003) Ah yes. The con film that begins with the narrator describing his own death. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is all going to turn out nicely, but the twists and turns are the name of the game and if Confidence isn’t particularly revolutionary, it plays well enough. I’ve been, inexplicably, a mild fan of Ed Burns for a while and he certainly knows how to play as the lead man in a gang of con artists on a rampage in Los Angeles. One operation goes too well, they find out they just double-crossed a powerful crime lord and suddenly, they must atone for their miscalculation by performing another con. Double-crosses, counter-crosses, infini-crosses follow. Fans of Rachel Weisz will not be disappointed, as she demonstrates an uncanny capability at playing a scheming seductress. The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good, with the usual props to Dustin Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Andy Garcia. The direction moves with a certain style and the screenplay efficiently propels the story forward. The ending is a bit of a mess; I’m not even sure if it makes any sense at all. But in a con film, these senseless twists are the norm, and they are easily forgiven as long as it ends in a satisfactory fashion. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a happier ending than the one featured here, and this happy impression is the one to keep.
(On DVD, September 2010) Years later, this film may play even more smoothly than it first did: I had forgotten much about the smooth scene transitions, clever dialogues and exceptional ensemble cast. Director James Foley knows what he’s doing, and his Los Angeles is drenched in unusual color accents. As a con film, it’s hardly revolutionary… but it promises a good time and it fulfills its part of the bargain handily.