(Second Viewing, On DVD, September 2016) I remember seeing Dante’s Peak in theatres and being quite a bit impressed at the special effects, town destruction and convincing re-creation of a major volcanic eruption. (I also had a bit of a crush on Linda Hamilton, so that helped.) Nearly twenty years later, given the constant evolution of CGI, would the film hold up? As it turns out, the special effects mostly do … but the overall pacing doesn’t hold up as well. Faithfully following the disaster-movie template, Dante’s Peak does struggle to find something to do in-between its spectacular (if depressing) opening sequence and the final all-out volcanic destruction of a small northwestern town. Pierce Brosnan is cool and capable as the volcanologist crying wolf, while Hamilton is credible as the small-town mayor listening to him, but the script doesn’t quite know how to create attachment to the smaller characters or keep up the tension beyond small-town drama mechanics first well-worn in Jaws. Once the volcano erupts, though, things improve sharply. The practical effects used to simulate the destruction of the town still look relatively good (even though we’ve grown accustomed to the all-out chaos made possible with CGI) and the sweeping shots of a town being buried under ash do carry a certain majesty. Director Roger Donaldson is most in his element when showcasing natural mayhem, and sequences such as the bridge passage are as good as Dante’s Peak ever gets. The ending is a bit more intense and claustrophobic than I remembered (thankfully quickly moving on to the coda) and if the film doesn’t quite hold up as a complete success, it’s still good enough to make audiences happy, especially if they can muster a bit of nostalgia for mid-nineties catastrophe films.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) To be entirely honest, I started watching Remember Me knowing where it was headed, and was already predisposed to dismiss its manipulative ways. What I didn’t know is that the film doesn’t just end on a grand melodrama, but begins with one as well as the mother of one of the main characters is senselessly killed in the very first scene. It quickly gets worse, with the introduction of a mopey protagonist who spends his days moaning about his life without appreciating any of the privileges he’s given. With his dead brother, library job, quirky friend and New York City apartment, he practically checks off the grand list of insufferable protagonists. The tone thus having been set, Remember Me remains almost laughable throughout; an exercise is pushing melodrama to the breaking point where the only rational response is to dismiss the entire film as self-indulgent rubbish. Then there’s the climax, which seems overwrought even knowing what’s coming. Robert Pattinson didn’t exactly cover himself with anti-Twilight glory by starring into this film—his sullen persona is well executed but fundamentally irritating, and having more charming actors such as Pierce Brosnan run circles around him (even when nominally portrayed as antagonists) doesn’t help. I’m sure that there is an adoring public for the kind of cheap weepy drama that is Remember Me, but I’m not in that group.
(Video on-Demand, September 2016) I’d like to report that Urge is interesting at least in part, but sadly it’s a fractured film that’s not very good, even though the way it’s unpleasant in its first half is not the way it’s unpleasant in its second half. Congratulations are probably in order for a film that finds two ways to be bad rather than a single one, but that’s not exactly the kind of achievement that wins awards. Initially, Urge looks like a weekend among insufferable rich kids, taking over a beach house in order to go wild with unbridled excesses. Things get slightly more interesting during the second act, when a mysterious man (Pierce Brosnan, the sole saving grace of the film for the three scenes in which he appears) offers our character a hit of a new kind of drug. If you’ve seen any American movie about young people and drugs over the past three decades, you can guess what happens next: A wild night of fun, followed by a sobering return to reality. You can also guess what happens then: another night, another hit. But chances are that you will be only half-able to predict what happens then. Oh, it’s simple enough to figure out that the second hit won’t be as good. It’s not much of a stretch to anticipate that the drug-addled protagonist turn against each other in their stupor. But to go all the way from that starting point to a zombie invasion goes beyond any reasonable expectation, and the way this is handled (with lightbulb electrocutions, heads exploding under dropped weights and other ludicrous atrocities I’m not sure I want to remember) is ridiculous to the point of being exasperating. It really doesn’t help that there isn’t a likable character in the entire cast, or that whatever setup establishing the characters is ditched in favour of shocking gore. Even if Pierce Brosnan plays the devil offering hell-on-earth through ecstasy pills: who cares? If you want a zombie film, do a zombie film … but try to do that as a first act establishing plot device rather than a dull conclusion leading straight to something we’ve seen often enough already. There’s two minutes of generic zombies-in-a-supermarket stuff after the credits, but they really don’t add anything.
(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.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Despite its rather saucy title, How To Make Love Like an Englishman (retitled to the much blander Some Kind of Beautiful in the United States) is a fairly mild-mannered romantic comedy, albeit with some amazingly ill-conceived moments. Featuring Pierce Brosnan in a role that superficially looks like a vanity project (he’s listed as an executive producer), this is a film that asks you to sympathize with an older booze-pickled academic lothario who moves to California to be with his unplanned child’s mom, even after she kicks him out to the pool-house (which is more luxurious than most main dwellings) and takes up with another man. Ludicrous complications ensue, from his falling for his ex-partner’s older sister, being arrested for DUI, being deported and then sneaking back in US soil among Mexican illegals… it’s really hard to figure out why the script does what it does, but the result is both charming and creepy at the same time: Anyone else but Brosnan in the role would have made the film fail loudly. Even as it is, it’s hard to know whether we should be laughing or cringing: How To Make Love Like an Englishman embraces the lovable-alcoholic trope far too long, even after it’s proven to be actively dangerous to other characters. It also seems to live in a genial Neverland of strange human emotions and fairy-tale California sets never to be experienced by us humble viewers. At least Brosnan has a bit of slimy adulterer’s charm, while Salma Hayek gets to play sexy for a while and Malcolm McDowell is the ideal crusty father-figure. (Poor Jessica Alba doesn’t get much to do, though.) There are a few genuinely amusing sequences; others are just puzzling. The result is all over the place, including some genuine head-scratching moments. There may be weirder romantic comedies out there at the moment, but contemplating this one is more than enough.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) This hero-on-the-run thriller may not be particularly original, but it’s often on-point when it comes to execution. Largely set in London, Survivor follows an intelligence analyst (Milla Jovovich, ably playing her usual action heroine persona) as she finds herself framed for a terrorist plot. A great use of London locations helps sell the film, along with a decent number of recognizable actors including Pierce Brosnan unusually playing a straight-up villain. The best thing about James McTeigue’s direction is that it generally remains within the realm of the plausible despite the often logic-defying leaps in the plot. This helps explain why the film’s third act, when it abruptly shifts its action to New York, is a let-down: Not only does it break unity-of-setting, but it cranks the tension up to an artificial degree and does so artlessly. After a conventional but well-handled rising of suspense, the last minutes of the film are just conventional. Survivor is still not a bad film, but it could have been handled quite a bit better.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) Perhaps the most interesting thing about this average euro-spy thriller is how it can be seen as an attempt by Pierce Brosnan to create a franchise for himself. Given that Brosnan has purchased the rights to an entire series of espionage thriller novels, has produced the film and stars in it, this is no mere catty supposition as much as it’s clear-headed analysis. Brosnan, as an ex-Bond, knows the advantages of having his own franchise and if he’s willing to put his money on the table –who can blame him? Of course, it would be best if he was able to deliver a good movie. While The November Man isn’t actually bad, it’s almost admirably average. Blending an intensely familiar blend of elements (somber east-European political machinations, past massacres being covered up, rogue superiors, kidnapped family members, protégé-turned-enemy, and so on…) in a film put together in a competent but mechanical fashion. Fortunately, The November Man is average in a genre that can be satisfying even when it’s mediocre: I hadn’t seen a spy thriller in some time and was almost hungering for an example, any example in the genre. So my expectations were met, and I wasn’t asking for much more than that. This being said, The November Man has problems. As an adaptation of a latter novel in the series, it solicits emotional depth from the viewers (oh no! The other of his child has been killed! Oh no, his daughter has been kidnapped!) that it hasn’t had the time to earn in a few minutes. The stakes are relatively low, the characters and dialogues are fairly dull –basically, while the film meets expectations, there’s nothing here that surpasses them. The November Man is the very definition of a pleasant but instantly forgettable genre piece, good enough for an evening but almost entirely forgotten the next morning.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) As an officially-sanctioned history of the first fifty years of the James Bond film franchise, Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 is satisfying: Through a mixture of talking heads, narration, archival footage and clips from the movies themselves, the film cobbles together a highlight reel of the franchise’s distinct eras, behind-the-scenes upheavals, cultural impact and passing whims. Its single best asset is in featuring all Bonds (except for Sean Connery, for reasons that quickly become obvious) reflecting upon their tenure as Bond and the reasons behind their exit from the franchise. George Lazenby rebelling from The Establishment? Pierce Brosnan cackling over kite-surfing a tsunami? Entertaining stuff. But this overview of the franchise’s history only skims the surface, and no amount of good words from Bill Clinton himself can fully explore the infighting between the Broccoli family and legal challengers to the Bond franchise, or the various issues faced by the filmmakers in shooting Bond movies. It’s also curiously quick to dispense with entire eras of the Bond franchise, some movies barely earning a mention. (It’s also inevitably flawed in having been released alongside Skyfall, a Bond film that will stand on its own as worthy of further discussion in later retrospectives.) The film isn’t above a bit of mythmaking (I’m not sure that the Fleming novels were as innovative as the narration makes them out to be), and for its entire often-surprising candor, it remains an authorized documentary that doesn’t dare criticize the official version of events. While an entertaining and superbly-edited film, Everything or Nothing is most likely to make viewers do two things, neither of which are entirely bad: First up, make everyone see the Bond films over again. Second: have them look for a more detailed and more objective history of the franchise, if only to more fully explore elements barely mentioned within the confines of a 90-minutes documentary.
(In theatres, March 2010) Roman Polanski may be a runaway convicted pedophile, but he sure knows how to direct a movie. Faithfully adapted by Robert Harris from his own unusually accessible novel, The Ghost Writer starts with an intriguing premise and then accelerates into a full-blown political thriller. As a ghostwriter asked to help a former British Prime Minister finish his memoirs after the untimely death of his predecessor, Ewan McGregor is sympathetic enough to hold our interest. Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan is convincing as the conniving politician. The fascinating aspects of ghost-writing are strong enough to allow us to settle in the film’s increasingly frantic pacing. Once our protagonist starts finding clues about his subject’s past, palace intrigue develops and modern accusations come to besiege their quiet beachfront house. Added interest can be found in The Ghost Writer’s not-so-subtle political allusions to Tony Blair’s administration. The film’s plot is nearly identical to the book, but it’s really Polanski’s deft touch with suspense that ties up the film in a neat bow. A number of showy sequences present familiar developments in refreshing fashion, and the deliberate pacing keeps things neither too slow nor too fast. Some plot kinks are best explained in the book (which is also a bit more aggressive in political themes), but overall The Ghost Writer is a well-made thriller for adults, bringing back memories of classic seventies movie paranoia. You can say what you want about Polanski, but the result up on the screen is unarguable.
(In theatres, February 2010) The trailer for this film was unremarkable, so it’s a small surprise that the film itself proves just fine. No in terms of plotting, which blends “kid with a fantastic origin” with “quest!” and explicitly takes on the good old plot-coupon approach to second-act plotting. Not in terms of verisimilitude, when some of the dumbest material actually makes it on-screen in what looks like a summer camp that no one would enjoy. No, the chief saving grace of this adaptation of the first Percy Jackson & The Olympians book is in the way it adapts Greek mythology to a modern-day context. Part of this package are seeing a bunch of known actors in small roles: While Pierce Brosnan is OK as centaur Chiron and Sean Bean is credible as Zeus, it’s Uma Thurman as a leathery Medusa and Rosario Dawson as luscious Persephone that get all the attention. They are barely enough to make us ignore more fundamental details about the film’s world-building, and how it doesn’t exactly hang together gracefully. It’s a good thing that it’s Chris Columbus who directs the film, because it makes the clunky first-act plot similarities with Harry Potter easier to dismiss. But then again, the fun of the film is in the details, not the overall plot. A few good action sequences, complete with top-of-the-line special effects, finish off a package that is, all things considered, a bit better and more fun than anyone would have thought.
(On DVD, sometime mid-2009) I’m not that familiar with the original stage jukebox musical, but even I know that it’s a frothy romantic comedy built around a number of ABBA songs. As such, the film adaptation Mamma Mia! does service to the concept: It’s lighthearted, romantic, and features a series of numbers based on ABBA songs. As three older men converge on a Greek island where an ex-flame and her daughter live, it’s the film’s smallest mystery to find out who is the girl’s father. Much of the time is spend singing and dancing, helped along by the inescapable (and somewhat delightful) fact that ABBA’s music has inserted itself deeply into modern pop culture. The result may be kitsch, but it’s familiar and comfortable kitsch without a mean bone and with an inordinate desire to please. It is, in other words, almost impossible to dislike. The actors involved aren’t all good singers, but it’s part of the film’s charm to see Pierce Brosnan croon, even hoarsely, to Meryl Streep. Amanda Seyfried is cute as a Muppet as the daughter with a mystery father, and the fantastic Greek scenery adds a lot to the film’s sunny atmosphere. Mamma Mia! isn’t high art, but sometimes campy pop is more than good enough.