(On TV, August 2015) A common failing for horror movies is to fail to match the surface shocks with a coherent background acting as explanation. Some filmmakers aren’t even interested in doing so, and their films feel like a series of shocks untroubled with justifications. But I trust that viewers like a bit of substance to go with the scares. Mirrors, to its credit, almost gets it right: its surface shocks have to do with reflective surfaces and what can reach characters from behind the mirror. The gather good atmosphere supports an effective sense of dread (especially during its very end), and the film’s various gags get to have a bit of fun with the concept of “mirrors”. As Mirrors develops its mythology further, though, we’re asked to believe in increasingly arbitrary details, inconsistent powers and a rather dull origin story. Keifer Sutherland does what he can to keep things interesting, and Paula Patton does her darnedest in an underwritten role, but there really isn’t much more here than a few showpieces for director Alexandre Aja. Mirrors is far more interesting in small disconnected moments than as a coherent whole, and even a few effective shots don’t make more of a lasting impact if they’re impossible to place in an effective story.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-profile romantic comedy (a remake of a 1986 film based on a 1974 David Mamet play), but I should have suspected otherwise given that it stars the enormously likable Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant. Set in downtown Los Angeles, About Last Time details a year in the life of four young people, during which they meet, fall in love, break up, reconcile and change careers. Almost immediately charming, it’s a film built on dialogues and performances, and all four main actors truly knock it out of the park, with particular mentions for Hart and Hall, both of whom play the uninhibited comic relief couple to the more conventional Ealy and Bryant. (Elsewhere in the film, Paula Patton has another great but too-short turn as a romantic antagonist.) While About Last Night isn’t particularly original, it’s slickly-made, modern, almost constantly funny and features intensely likable actors. It’s hard to ask for much more from a romantic comedy
(Video on Demand, March 2014) There is absolutely nothing new in Baggage Claim, a good-natured but familiar romantic comedy in which a flight attendant frantically sets out to find a husband in thirty days by re-examining her past boyfriends. The conclusion is obvious barely thirty minutes in the film (to the point where the remaining plot elements either feel forced or obvious) and all that remains is enjoying the actors’ performances. Which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing: Paula Patton finally gets a good starring comic role (after what felt like a long series of supporting roles in action movies) and she plays the comedy as broadly as she can, with infectiously charming results. There is also a lot to like in the series of would-be suitors jostling for screen time, from Derek Luke’s boy-next-door charm to Taye Diggs’ power-broker strength to Djimon Hounsou’s effortless smoothness. (Seriously; is that guy even capable of being anything less than totally suave?) While the film’s romantic messages (“Be yourself”, etc.) and airport-set climax were old decades ago, this familiarity works at lowering expectations to the point where the film feels likable even despite having nothing new to say. Romantic Comedies have the built-in advantage of innocuous failure modes: even at their blandest, they’re more forgettable than actively irritating. So it is that Baggage Claim may have flaws, but it’s competently-executed enough to settle for mild entertainment. The actors get to show what they can do, no one will be offended by the results and I can name plenty of films that don’t even meet those two criteria.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Sometimes, subtlety or originality be damned, simple and straightforward is the way to do it. So it is that 2 Guns doesn’t need much more than a premise re-using familiar genre elements (in this case, two undercover agents teaming up against drug cartels after accidentally stealing far more than they expected and discovering that the other is not a hardened criminal) and two solid actors doing what they know best. Mark Whalberg is up to his usual average-blue-collar-guy persona as a Navy agent caught hanging in the breeze, while Denzel Washington is all effortless charm as a DEA agent close to going rogue. Both actors work differently, but here they get a good chance to play off each other, and the result feels more than entertaining. They really don’t stretch their persona, but 2 Guns is a breezy film that doesn’t requires brave performances. (Case in point: Paula Patton looking good and Bill Paxton acting bad, stretching a bit but not too much.) Director Baltasar Kormákur ably follows-up on his previous Contraband by delivering an average but competent criminal action thriller with clean set-pieces and straightforward narrative rhythm. It’s hard to say much more about 2 Guns: Who needs a new classic when the same-old can be done so well?