(On TV, December 2018) I’m as surprised as you are to find out that, somehow, I missed out on a big-budget CGI movie for almost a decade. Of course, A Christmas Carol has two disadvantages—it falls squarely in the Christmas Movie Ghetto of films that are only shown 25 days of the year then fall out of mind for eleven months, and it also shares a title and plot with roughly ten other movies all adapting Dicken’s classic. This being said, there isn’t another A Christmas Carol like this one, and there probably will never be—this is the CGI version of the story, using circa-2009 CGI which was fine for inanimate objects and ghosts but not so much human characters. The camera makes showy moves through Dickensian London, but the attempt to recreate human actors falls squarely into the uncanny valley. There’s a difference between attempting stylized human characters (something that most animated movies do) and actually trying to recreate human actors and A Christmas Carol sadly goes for the latter. Script-wise, this take on the story is significantly darker than you’d expect from previous versions, with several sequences designed to scare audiences. The inclusion of action sequences (most notably a chase sequence featuring flying sleds throughout the city) also seems gratuitous and made to push the 3D craze of the time. Director Robert Zemeckis capped his trilogy of ill-conceived 3D-CGI features with this one (after The Polar Express and Beowulf) and it’s a good thing he then went on to do other kinds of movies. Nearly a decade later, there haven’t been any attempts to go beyond this highly detailed CGI-fest, but we can already suspect that it’s not going to age nearly as well as versions made decades before. (For the record, my best current take on Dickens’s story is the 1999 BBC version starring Patrick Stewart.)
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2018) I remembered enough of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to know that it was a good movie, but I had forgotten what made it a great one. It clicks on several levels, whether you’re looking for simple slapstick comedy, an imaginative fantasy, an ode to cartoons or a homage to noir movies. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the film is its legacy. I’m old enough to remember how groundbreaking the movie was in meshing cartoon characters with live-action actors, which seems old hat in a contemporary cinematic landscape where reality is infinitely malleable and blockbuster movies are routinely computer-generated from beginning to end. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? gave rise to an industry matching imaginary characters with real actors, but it remains so successful as to warrant a look even today. The character of Roger Rabbit is funny enough (his insistence on the Rule of Funny is good for some of the film’s biggest laughs), but add in a classic grizzled detective played in a career-best performance by Bob Hoskins, and the sultriest of femme fatales with Jessica Rabbit (She’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way) and you’ve got something that approaches iconic archetypes. Director Robert Zemeckis has always been interested in pushing the cinematic state of the art, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has stood the test of time better than just another gimmicky film. (Heck, The Polar Express has aged more badly than its 1988 predecessor). I can name a handful of scenes from the movie that all warrant viewing, from the Duck Piano Duel to the Toontown visit to the “Patty Cakes” sequence to the crazed taxi pursuit to the first scene with Judge Doom. (Parents take note: That scene is the reason why the film is suggested for adult audiences. I had to deal with a crying 6-year old when she got interested in the film’s cute cartoons and ended up watching the infamous shoe bath sequence. To my defence, I did not intend to have her watch that sequence—she happened to walk in the room at a bad time.) As a fan of noir film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? does happen to nail down several of the genre’s idioms and particular pleasures … perhaps better than many neo-noir earnest attempts. All told, I’m really glad I had an excuse to revisit the film: It’s still a lot of fun and hasn’t aged nearly as much as I was expecting.
(In French, On Cable TV, September 2017) If ever you’re in the mood for an action comedy in which a romance author finds adventure and love in South America alongside a dashing rogue, then Romancing the Stone should be your first pick. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it relatively well thanks to the lead actors and director Robert Zemeckis’s knack (even at that early stage of his career) for executing complex projects. Here we go from New York City to Colombia, evading government forces, drug lords and criminals along the way. Michael Douglas is quite good as the dashing adventurer, reminding us of his younger leading-man days. Opposite him, Kathleen Turner is not bad as a writer thrust in a series of adventures, loosening up along the way. There is nothing particularly novel to what Romancing the Stone is trying to do, and it can occasionally be annoying in how it goes about it (most notably in presenting the bumbling criminals who are supposed to be one of the two main sets of antagonists) but it does manage to become the adventure film it wants to be, with a good helping of comedy and romance to go along with the thrills. It occasionally fells long, and some of the limitations of 1984 filmmaking do show up from time to time, but Romancing the Stone remains mildly enjoyable even today.
(On DVD, April 2017) Mmm mmm, mmm, delicious crow. I’ve long been an immature know-it-all, but now that I’m undeniably middle-aged, it’s time to atone and repent—part of it being recognizing Forrest Gump’s greatness. For, alas, dear readers, I have been boycotting Forrest Gump since it came out, since I was a mid-nineties neckbeard taking Bruce Sterling’s opinion as gospel. (True story: I was the guy who, while standing in line to see True Lies, sarcastically said “Awww, noooo” when they announced that Forrest Gump was sold-out.) Now, it’s true that I’ve never been a fan of holy fool stories. It’s also a given that I didn’t know enough about recent American history in 1994 to fully appreciate Forrest Gump’s little jokes and subtle inferences. It’s particularly true that my taste in movies has expanded quite a bit since then. All of which to say that while I’m late to the Forrest Gump party (to partly exonerate myself, I have read the novel a decade ago), I’m more than ready to cover it with praise. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the movie is that it’s actually dealing with very clever matters under the guise of telling how a simple-minded man made his way through thirty tumultuous years of American history. At this stage in my life, I’m seeing it as a parable about how being good is better than being smart. But it’s also about the advantages of letting go, the synthesis of different views (Forrest vs Jenny) about life and history, the strengths of expressionist filmmaking and just how good Tom Hanks can be at incarnating the spirit of the United States in its multifaceted quality. Robert Zemeckis pushes the envelope of filmmaking so well that the special effects remain convincing even twenty-some years later—the use of “invisible” special effects to heighten reality remains close to the gold standard even today. Hanks is terrific as the lead character, finding a tricky balance between simple dialogue and complex acting while the film also has good turns for Robin Wright and Gary Sinise. The various nods and jokes at 1950s–1980s American history are hilarious (I’m sure I missed a few) while the film does manage to escape its episodic nature by weaving a few subplots in and out of the episodes. It’s a weirdly compelling film, with short comic bits combining with an overall story to make for sustained watching pleasure. A smart movie about a not-so-smart (but admirable) man, Forrest Gump has since ascended to the status of a modern classic, and I now see why. I may not wholly embrace it as five-star perfection, but I concede happily that I should have seen it earlier.
(On Cable TV, June 2016) I remember seeing bits and pieces of Death Becomes Her before (especially the special effects work) but not the entire thing and having watched it, I can only conclude that Hollywood’s become far more risk-averse in the past twenty-five years because … wow, this is a weird film. It blends comedy with a fair bit of understated horror, hops viewpoints between protagonists, plays with supernatural tropes and seems delighted in deglamorizing its stars. Seeing Bruce Willis play a downtrodden surgeon is remarkable not only because he’s relatively animated in the role, but because it’s the kind of self-deprecating role he’d never play any more. Goldie Hawn (occasionally in a fat suit) and Meryl Streep (gamely going to lowbrow physical comedy) also play against persona, carefully directed by Robert Zemeckis with the kind of silliness that seems absent from the last two decades of his work. What’s definitely within his filmography is the film’s use of special effects for storytelling purpose: While dated, the work still carries a certain charge even today, and it’s not a surprise to find out that it won the Special Effects Oscar back in 1993. Beyond effects, Death Becomes Her does have a bit of beauty/age thematic depth to it, although I probably would feel better about a clash between aging actresses had the script been better at portraying the female gaze: At times, the “ha-ha, they’re so vain!” gags can feel mean-spirited and missing the point of the theme. But it’s definitely a weird film, also so much so that it’s to be discovered and savoured. It takes chances, occasionally missteps and often dares to indulge in risk-taking humour. The result may not be entirely successful, but it’s gleefully audacious and remains its own creation, without giving the impression of being photocopied from the Hollywood mainstream. Worth a look, if only as a reminder of the kind of stuff that Hollywood won’t dare touch these days at it chases predictable results.
(On Cable TV, April 2015) The incredible story of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 managed to walk a wire between the two towers of the just-completed World Trade Center, was so exceptionally well covered in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire that a docu-fictional take on the same event didn’t feel necessary. But get Robert Zemeckis in charge of The Walk, give him a decent budget, put Joseph Gordon Lewitt in the lead role and suddenly, things look far more promising. Zemeckis, always impressively able to augment reality with special effects, here uses a joyously expressionistic tone to reflect Petit’s unbounded enthusiasm as his character (standing on the Statue of Liberty, a postcard-perfect view of pre-2001 Manhattan behind him) explains his life and the wire-walking caper. While some of The Walk’s first half-hour drags a bit (“Oh no, a flashback within a flashback!” is a bad sign in any film, and this one is no exception), the visually inventive tone of the film works well at keeping our interest until the film’s standout sequence, a vertiginous set-piece showing Petit walking from one tower to another … and then again and again, gently mocking policemen sent to arrest him, bowing to his audience and paying homage to the towers for making this stunt possible. It’s hard not to smile while watching The Walk, so infectious is Petit’s exuberant joie-de-vivre. Joseph Gordon-Lewitt had a tough role in trying to come across credibly as Petit (the real-life character, as demonstrated in Man on Wire, is simply incredible), but he manages it well … and his Parisian French is so well done at times that I wondered if he was dubbed. (But no, it turns out he speaks French almost fluently, and worked hard at nailing the accent for his performance.) Combined to the physical component of his roles, it makes for an exceptional performance. Nearly as amazing is Zemeckis, seamlessly using special effects and practical sets to create now-impossible sights. The luminosity of the 1974 New York portrayed in the film is spectacular, and the camera moves enabled by the virtual sets are enough to make viewers agog. (See it on the biggest screen you can, unless you easily get vertigo) Perhaps best of all is the feeling that The Walk complements rather than duplicates or nullifies Man on Wire: It’s a terrific story, and Zemeckis had the required means to present the story as best he could.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Flight is the kind of film, once popular, that is now rarely seen as a Hollywood wide-release: A character study of a flawed anti-hero, along with a decidedly un-heroic look at an ethical conundrum. Denzel Washington truly stars as a constantly-intoxicated pilot who manages to save a flight from certain doom after a freak accident: he exploits his screen personae to the fullest in delivering as unpleasant a character as he has managed since Training Day. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as the post-accident investigation process circles around his own failings as a cause of the crash. There are some harrowing thrills as Flight graphically portrays a terrible airplane ride (director Robert Zemekis is nothing if not a technically competent director), but most of the film is just solid drama, all leading up to a climactic scene in which the story can go either way. The result is surprisingly satisfying; the kind of solid film-making that survives on a good old-fashioned script and strong performances. It’s certainly worth a look, especially for Washington’s performance.
(On Cable TV, February 2013) When I say that What to Expect When You’re Expecting (the book) was one of my constant references in late 2011, I’m not just recommending the book, but also announcing that as a new parent I’m far more sympathetic to the film than other reviewers (or myself at an earlier age) could be. Ensemble comedies with multiple plot-lines are a tricky bet: not all plotlines are equally interesting, not all characters get enough screen time to be fully defined, and not all subplots intersect in meaningful ways. What to Expect does a heroic job at fashioning a comic narrative out of a reference work, and generally manages to avoid the pitfalls of ensemble comedies: All five pregnancy subplots are developed with sufficient detail, the characters are endearing in their own ways, and the interplay between them is often amusing. It’s not all meaningless fluff throughout: the subplot involving Anna Kendrick remains a bit of a downer for much of the film, whereas the film’s biggest emotional punch unexpectedly comes from an adoption sequence (perhaps because, unlike the delivery scenes, it doesn’t cover very familiar ground) featuring a Jennifer Lopez fresh off the similarly-themed The Backup Plan. Otherwise, there’s plenty of good character work here, from Elizabeth Banks’ frustration-filled (yet most realistic) journey to Dennis Quaid’s happiest role to date. But the standout performance title goes to Chris Rock, who elevates the film every time the hilarious “Dude’s Group” is featured onscreen. Is What to Expect a formula-scripted film? Of course. Are the comic beats broad and obvious? Most of the time. Could it have been better? Probably. But will it appeal to anyone in its target demographic? Well, that’s the whole point of the film.
(In theaters, November 2007) Hollywood can make dumb mincemeat out of everything, and classical English literature is no exception. High School teachers everywhere will be devastated to see one of their favourite form of Olde Englishe torture defanged forever by an adaptation that reaches for low comedy, high action and cheap 3D effects. That last item, incidentally, is why the movie is best seen on an IMAX 3D screen: Director Robert Zemeckis is so naively obsessed by the technology that he crammed his film with arrowheads, spires and people being flung at the (virtual) camera, all of which look silly on a regular 2D screen. But they’re far from being the silliest element of a film that borrows from Austin Powers in order to present a naked hero fighting a monster. Yet little of this is as annoying as the not-quite-there quality of the CGI actors, which suffers from the Uncanny Valley cliché as they stutter without grace from one mo-capped pose to another. Pieces of the second Grendel battle are so jerky that they look like a deliberate homage to Harryhausen stop-motion claymation. But if we’re going to list all of the bone-headed ideas of this film, we’re going to be here a while: What about Angelina Jolie’s kinda-naked scene, complete with high-heeled feet and Transylvanian accent? Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the way John August and Neil Gaiman’s script ends up feeling silly, clumsy and forced: Their intended mythical gravitas ends up swept under the carpet of a generic fantasy film with 3D effects. The only enjoyable part of the film comes late, as the elderly Beowulf fights off one of the finest dragons yet seen on-screen: the action beats are numerous, well-designed and completely thrilling. But then the 3D effects kick in again, and the film flops on a series of meaningful glares that leave us uncertain as to whether the film was supposed to be a comedy or not. In any case, it’s miscalculations upon miscalculations for a film that has more value as a technical showpiece than an actual plotted story.