(On TV, July 2019) For most of Youngblood’s duration, I was firmly onboard the movie. I happen to think that there aren’t enough hockey movies as it is, and this one happens to portray junior hockey in generally believable detail. Rob Lowe stars (with some assistance from Patrick Swayze—although not as much as you’d think—and a tiny part for Keanu Reeves as a goalie) as a young man escaping the farm to try to make it in the minor leagues. Much of the movie is about his attempts to fit in, as an American crossing the border to play with a Canadian team. There aren’t that many unusual or intriguing things about Youngblood (although the boarding house madam who collects players may qualify), but for most of its duration it’s a straightforward hockey movie. But then, just as I forgot that I had recorded the film off The Fight Channel (temporarily descrambled, I swear), there came the last minutes where, not content with winning a climactic game, the film feels forced to throw in a gratuitous fight. Nooo, that’s not the essence of hockey. And with that went my amicable recommendation for the film, its small-city atmosphere, its forced romance or its gentler take on Slap Shot material. Hockey is a noble sport—it doesn’t need fights and it’s not about fights.
(In French, On Cable TV, July 2019) It’s one thing to have complex nuanced characters, especially in an ensemble film. But Saint Elmo’s Fire is almost impressive in the way that it features one unpleasant character after another, self-absorbed and terrible to each other. It does start promisingly in its mid-1980s Georgetown setting, as its freshly-graduated protagonists try to figure out life, love and everything else. Alas, this quickly goes nowhere as the characters engage in self-defeating behaviour, do terrible things to each other and can’t seem to learn a single thing. The point of the film, for many viewers, will be the cast and director: A defining work of the “Brat Pack,” Saint Elmo’s Fire features Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy and, not quite in the Brat Pack nor all that long in the movie, my own favourite Andie MacDowell, with Joel Schumacher at the helm (and, unusually, as a co-writer). It does feel like an immature teen movie with characters who only happen to be old enough for sex but not anything feeling like human interaction. It’s hard to believe that anyone involved in the film wasn’t aware of the inanity of the script, but if they tried doing a comedy then it’s a complete misfire. Trying to explain the finer details of the film’s plot is begging someone to call you insane. Anyone thinking of watching Saint Elmo’s Fire for the cast may want to reconsider the limits of that intention.
(On TV, June 2019) In Hollywood, not every plan goes as expected, and so it is that Monster Trucks was initially conceived as a family blockbuster film with franchise potential—complete with familiar-but-not-superstar actors, a generous special effects budget, and expansive location shooting. Much of the excitement about the property seemed to come from its straightforward premise: Monster trucks, or rather (if you insist on more details), monsters in trucks. You can hear the Hollywood executive thinking from here: there’s nothing that boys like better than monsters and trucks, so a film combining the two couldn’t be anything but a box-office success. Alas, things didn’t go as planned: Paramount knew something wasn’t quite right as animation veteran director Chris Wedge’s film advanced through production, because the release date of the film gradually went from May 2015 to January 2017. Things got worse after release: Budgeted at $125M, Monster Trucks eked out a worldwide gross of $64M as everyone finally saw what Paramount realized early on: it just wasn’t very good. Reviews were terrible and the film sank from franchise launcher to family cable-TV filler—you’ll be lucky today to find anyone who has seen it. Alternately, it has become an entrant in a very special club—the big-budget bombs club, where viewers can feast on high production values in service of … not much. Like a superpowered engine installed in a jalopy (to use the film’s plot points against itself), Monster Trucks has great production values in the service of a middle-of-the-road story undermined by dumb moments. It may be a movie made for younger audiences, but that’s no excuse for the handful of overdone moments that make older audiences cringe—the film would be significantly better if it had excised those. Still, it’s easy to be overly critical of those big-budget bombs when their sheer scale ensures that there’s something interesting to watch at some point. Those moments usually coincide with special effects: There is a chase sequence midway through the film that holds up decently well; a garage sequence that will appeal to any inner twelve-year-old boy; and an extended climactic chase that gets the job done. The creature design finds a tricky balance between cute and disgusting. Familiar faces such as Barry Pepper, Rob Lowe, Danny Glover and especially Thomas Lennon turn in serviceable performances to support headliner Lucas Till. There is something halfway intriguing in reusing small-town fracking country as the basis for much of the premise, and to its credit Monster Trucks does end with a conclusion rather than a blatant setup for a later instalment. In short, it’s just a bit better than its (admittedly faint) reputation would suggest—my inner teenage boy was impressed enough by the big truck carnage.
(In French, On Cable TV, June 2019) I came to About Last Night… the other way around, having seen (and really enjoyed) the 2014 remake before seeing the original. This one is set in 1980s Chicago (nicely using the city’s landmarks), and follows a yuppie couple as they connect, disconnect, and reconnect over the span of a year. Demi Moore and Rob Lowe are quite likable as the lead couple. In fact, this may be my favourite performances from them both—and that’s saying something considering Moore’s extensive career. The better than average dialogue clearly comes from David Mamet’s original theatrical play, and it shines even through the crude French translation doing its best to keep up with its rapid rhythm. It’s easy to see why some consider it to be a semi-classic romantic comedy: the execution is much better than the somewhat stock premise. And yet, and yet: this may be a generational thing or a recency bias, but I can’t quite muster the same affection toward the original About Last Night… than I have for its Los Angeles-set remake. It’s still good enough … but not quite as good.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) The Troopers are back for more silliness in Super Troopers 2, with the Broken Lizard comedy troupe offering more of their specific sense of humour. This time, nothing less than national sovereignty is at stake, as an old surveying error leads to the American border being repositioned to take up a slice of Canadian land. In the meantime, the disgraced Troopers are asked to set up a Highway Patrol outpost in the contested zone. While the plotting has a few moments (“passive smuggling” is a clever concept), the point of Super Troopers 2 is, once again, the low-brow humour milking the Trooper’s stupidity, propensity to pranks and overall sociopathy. Those who loved the first film will like the second, even though it feels more calculated and less funny than it could have been. As a Canadian viewer, I had a lot of fun with the various unflattering stereotypes and dumb jokes playing off the difference between the US and Canada—even if some of the details ring patently false. As a low-budget film, it’s best not to expect too much from the result, although director Jay Chandrasekhar does manage a few convincing set-pieces along the way. I suppose I could make a half-hearted cultural representation argument that few of the French-Canadian actors are played by French-Canadians, but I don’t even believe that to be a problem, especially not when steps in Rob Lowe and Emmanuelle Chriqui (who, upon verification, was actually born in Montréal). Super Troopers 2 is not meant to be watched for a nuanced take on cross-cultural issues when there are dumb jokes to be made, and the best we can say is that it’s definitely in the same vein as its predecessor, often funnier than the similar French-Canadian Bon Cop Bad Cop 2, and entertaining enough if you’re in the right mindset.
(On Cable TV, July 2015) As a political junkie, campaign strategist is high on the list of dream jobs I’ll never have –but Knife Fight is good enough to make me live the experience vicariously. Starring Rob Lowe as an expect fixer working for political campaigns, Knife Fight delves deep into the dirty tricks deployed to make sure that “the right guy” wins. Interestingly, this does comes with a bit of soul-searching about what “the right guy” means and whether there’s a correlation between being a good leader and a fallible human being. Knife Fight certainly isn’t a perfect film (its chronology is a bit strange, it doesn’t delve quite long enough in the dark side of the dirty tricks, practically repeats itself at times, and gives short thrift to a few characters), but it’s unusual in that it’s co-written by an actual campaign consultant and so has more than a whiff of authenticity to it. Other than Lowe, who’s clearly having fun, the film does have a few likable performances by Jamie Chung as a budding strategist and Carrie-Anne Moss as an improbable gubernatorial candidate. Knife Fight will most directly appear to left-leaning political junkies with its mixture of behind-the-scenes manipulation, wry humor and satire. It’s an enjoyable comedy in a very specific mold, and all the better for it.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Aykroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.