(On Cable TV, January 2019) With the simultaneous resurgence in R-rated comedies and immersive gaming for adults, it’s not such a surprise that something like Game Night would emerge—a comedy aimed at adults, taking on the mind games of a what’s-real-and-what’s-not kind of entertainment. The plot has to do with a regularly scheduled “game night” between friends spinning out of control as mystery men burst in the house and take away a player. As the group enjoys figuring out the clues to find the kidnappers, there are plenty of warnings that the line between entertainment and real danger is thinner than they expect. What could easily have been a thriller is here presented as a dark comedy, with characters blithely walking in danger when they are expecting the safety net of an arranged scenario. The distinction is further blurred by showy cinematography far closer to off-beat thriller than flat comedy—it supports the gaming thematic by playing head games with the audience, bathing everything in shadows and even tilt-focusing the images so that we’re reminded of game board pieces. Jason Bateman typically anchors the cast by providing level-headed snark even as the other actors are left to go wild. Rachel McAdams is a good foil as his wife, while Jesse Plemons is perhaps a bit too good as a lonely neighbour trying to join the gaming group—his performance is a bit too unnerving for comfort. The result is surprisingly good, especially when compared to other R-rated films: while I would have toned down the violence, the result does manage to find the tricky balance inherent in any black comedy, and the result is highly entertaining to watch. It even finds that meta-balance between the safety net of a comedy/game and the tension of a thriller/crime. Making good use of trendy elements, Game Night is a bit of a surprise and a welcome one at that.
(On TV, March 2017) Body-swapping comedies are a weird enough subgenre, but gender-swapping comedies featuring Rob Schneider are all the way out there between “gross” and “really?” Still, there are a few surprises in this fifteen-year-old film—most notably seeing Rachel MacAdams (two years before her Mean Girls/Notebook breakthrough) slumming it up in the lead role as a popular high school girl who unwillingly swaps bodies with an older male petty criminal. McAdams is good, and so is Anna Faris in a supporting role … even though the rest of the film is almost unbearably dumb. I say almost because, for all of its sins, The Hot Chick can’t help but explore a bit of the gender-bending queerness (in the best sense of the word) that its premise would suggest. Those fleeting moments almost make The Hot Chick interesting on its own terms. Still, much of the movie clearly shows its Happy Madison lineage—at the time, Schneider was perhaps at the height of his fame as a comedian, and he didn’t get there by being clever or refined. Unbearable at times, almost interesting at others, The Hot Chick is perhaps best seen today as an early film for people who then did better … or faded away like Schneider.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) At first glance, Spotlight doesn’t look like the most exciting movie of the year. It’s meant to tell the true story of investigative journalists who spend months uncovering a systematic pattern of child abuse by Boston-area priests and attempts to cover up the scandal. That’s not exactly gripping stuff, and the first few minutes of the film don’t promise much more by focusing on a newsroom and Tom McCarthy’s sober (i.e.: not flashy) directing style. But here’s the strange thing: after a while, once the introductions are out of the way, Spotlight starts getting better. Much better. Along with the journalist heroes of the film, we start getting absorbed in the scandal they’re uncovering. As they chase down clues, we start sheering for those characters in all of their quirkiness, drive and doggedness. In its own quiet way, Spotlight has a few devastating sequences, whether it’s interviews with abuse survivors, encounters with the guilty priests, or a disembodied voice suggesting that the magnitude of the scandal is far, far higher than anyone would suspect. It builds and builds, passing over 9/11 and accusations being hurled back at the investigative journalists, until a satisfying revelation of the scandal … followed by a few devastating title cards as epilogue. Spotlight may discuss a church scandal, but it’s not an anti-religion film: Not only does it give voice to practising Catholic characters, it’s far more vital as a celebration of the power of investigative journalism. In its own low-key way, Spotlight is a terrific spiritual successor to All the President’s Men: In a fair world, this film would lead to scores of young people enrolling in journalism school in order to make the fifth estate even stronger, better and more relevant to the nation. Instead, we’re left pondering the devastating impact of the Internet on newspaper closures, the drive away from in-depth journalism and toward click-bait media. Spotlight isn’t flashy, but it does have a fair number of compelling performances, for the always-excellent Mark Ruffalo as an intensely driven journalist, to Michael Keaton further enjoying a later-career renaissance as a sympathetic editor, to Rachel McAdams as a sensitive investigator and Liev Schreiber as a surprisingly enlightened manager. The script is a wonder of efficiency, as it manages to make document analysis compelling and lays down its scandalous revelation like a nightmarish horror movie. Best yet: the film reportedly stays faithful to the facts of the events. Spotlight may or may not be the best movie of the year as exemplified by the Academy Award it got, but it’s in many ways one of the best-controlled of them, one of the most quietly engrossing and one of the most surprising. It certainly qualifies as must-see viewing.
(Video on Demand, November 2015) With a few modifications, Southpaw would have made a splendid Rocky II: It begins with a boxer in the prime of his life, winning fights, enjoying his money, loving his wife and doting on his daughter. But it doesn’t take much for all of it to be taken away, and much of the film is spent going through this riches-to-rags story and then looking on as the protagonist digs himself out of the hole he’s fallen into. It’s a relatively familiar story (although the triggering incident twenty minutes in the film will surprise many who haven’t seen the trailer), but it’s generally well-executed enough. What really shines here is Jake Gyllenhall, physically pumped-up and ripped to a degree that may shock fans who aren’t used to seeing him in such peak condition: beyond the physique, he brings his usual intensity to a role far more aggressive than most of his previous performances and the result is often mesmerizing. (Compare him in Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler for an astonishing slice of filmography spanning just three years) Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams don’t exactly stretch themselves in supporting roles, but they each bring what they do best. Curtis “50 Cents” Jackson and Naomi Harris have all-too-brief minor roles, while Oona Laurence is remarkable in a tough child performance. Director Antoine Fuqua thankfully leaves some familiar tics behind in delivering Southpaw (it’s not quite a gratuitously violent nor as obsessed with police elements as many of his previous films, or instance) and he’s able to direct familiar boxing scenes with a good amount of power. It’s not quite a feel-good film (despite the triumphant ending, viewers will have to crawl along a lot of mud alongside its protagonist to get to the good parts) but it’s satisfying enough. Southpaw’s not meant to be subtle, but it lands its punches.
(On TV, March 2015) Do you want to weep? Because The Vow really wants you to weep. Adapted from real events, the film tells the story of a happily-married young couple challenged by the amnesia of the wife, who suddenly can’t remember anything in the past few years… including her entire relationship with her husband. Cue the awkwardness, frustration, family drama, ex-boyfriend coming back and heartbreaking sequences. The Vow may gleefully play with emotions, but it has the good fortune of being competently made, with very likable leads playing good-natured characters trying to work out an impossible situation. Rachel McAdams has the most difficult role as a woman trying to rediscover herself from a nearly-blank slate, while Channing Tatum is a bit miscast as the husband fighting to regain his marriage. (He is still, a bit unfortunately, too much associated with a lunk-head persona to be entirely credible as a sound engineer, but it’s interesting to compare his husband-focused role here with the one he had in Side Effects.) There are a few fine observations about the nature of self along the way, along with a heartwarming portrait of a happy marriage shattered too soon. (And a few not-so-subtle jokes, such as “Cafe Mnemonic”.) The Vow is a successful film in that it manages to hit the objectives it strives for without veering too deeply into melodrama. Does it mean that you want to see what this film wants you to see? Well, that may be a crucial difference between romantic comedies and romantic dramas.
(On TV, December 2014) I’m not a big fan of big romantic dramas, but in the decade since it was released, The Notebook has become a modern classic-of-sorts in its genre, as essential viewing for romance fans as, say, the contemporary Shaun of the Dead can be for zombie fans. And despite the cynicism that one can bring to it, The Notebook remains curiously effective in large part due to great performances and a killer hook of an ending that wraps it as definitely as any romance can. This is, obviously, the film that has made Ryan Gosling famous as a sex-symbol, and solidified a Hollywood career for Rachel McAdams – their onscreen performance is compelling (although by now nearly everyone knows that they weren’t getting along at the time) and their much-lauded poster-making rainstorm kiss scene can impress even the curmudgeons in the audience. Director Nick Cassavetes goes old-school in the way he helms the film, and that earnestness helps sell the old-fashioned story being told. The last few minutes are exceptionally effective, and cement the film’s high-drama romance. While The Notebook may not target me, there’s no denying how well it works at its intended goals, and deserves its place as a film whose reputation has grown in the years since its release.
(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller. No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend. Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking. It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices. At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil. Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy. Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film. Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen. The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such. Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.
(In theatres, August 2009): As someone who really enjoyed Audrey Niffenegger’s original novel, I watched The Time Traveler’s Wife more interested in the mechanics of its adaptation than in the romantic aspect of the story itself. It starts off well, with an opening sequence that efficiently explains what’s going on while remaining faithful to the premise of the story. It’s no surprise, though, to find out that the most interesting elements of the novel, those that sent readers in unpleasant or horrific territory, have either been softened or removed entirely. The emphasis of the film is strictly on the romantic aspect, and everything becomes subservient to it. This being said, it’s amazing to see how little actually changes even when character back-stories are removed (poor Gomez, so useless in the film) and when tense sequences simplified to a shadow of their written selves –such as the wedding sequence. A few more obviously cinematic sequences, such as the daughter-growing-up montage, don’t really compensate for the loos of the book’s depth. As straight-up science-fiction, The Time Traveler’s Wife is unconvincing: The time-traveling conceit makes absolutely no sense, and the travels themselves are even more blatantly at the mercy of the demands of the plot than in the book. It works a bit better as a romance, although many of the less pleasant implications of that aspect are left unexplored. Still, both Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams are fine in the lead role, and romances don’t ask for much more than that. The result, all things fairly considered, isn’t a failure: There’s been a surprising number of romantic fantasies using soft SF premises lately (Kate and Leopold, The Lake House, etc.) and this is a fair addition to the corpus.