(Video on Demand, March 2015) Chris Rock is an incredibly gifted comedian, but his fiction output as a writer/director has been disappointing so far: Head of State and I Think I Love my Wife are both OK without being spectacular, and it took Good Hair, a documentary, to showcase his talents as a filmmaker. Fortunately, Top Five is a strong new entry in his filmography, a down-to-the-streets romance with occasional moment of lunacy, a few great performances and a warm fuzzy feeling. The premise smells of autobiography, as a comedian feeling unmoored by commercial success rediscovers his roots over a hectic day. And while this film is definitely Rock’s show, he surrounds himself with a steady stream of cameos, hilarious short performances and enough quotable material to last a while. The chemistry he shares with co-star Rosario Dawson is remarkable, as she gets one of her best roles in years. Filled with laughs, spiced with wit and never empty of real emotions, Top Five feels like the film closest to Rock’s best comic persona so far.
(On TV, January 2015) The problem beyond movies that crank up their drama beyond a reasonable threshold is that they either become funny or annoying. Seven Pounds, to its credit, begins with a fascinating mystery: Who is this sad man, what has happened to him and what is he doing? As the protagonist’s actions are revealed, though, the overwrought drama kicks in. Are we being shamed in our loose morality by a fictional character so selfless? By the time the ending rolls by, even the most sympathetic viewers will spot at least two or three major holes in the plot, and it takes a lot of forgiveness to be moved by the film’s extreme sentimentality. Will Smith is actually pretty good in the lead role, stretching acting muscles seldom used during his career. Opposite him, Rosario Dawson is unexpectedly captivating, while Michael Ealy makes an impression in a small role. (One can’t say the same about Woody Harrelson, largely wasted in a generic role). Some of the details of the film are interesting, and Gabriele Muccino’s direction is handled with skill. Still, the impression left by the last few minutes of the film is one of increasing bewilderment, if not outright disbelief: By cranking up the dramatic stakes so ludicrously high, Seven Pounds undoes quite a bit of its careful quiet setup. I’m just not sure it deserves the ending it reaches for.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) The moment any modern thriller brings in hypnosis as a plot device, it’s time to sit down and expect a tortured maze of plot twists. Trance is no exception: if the title wasn’t enough, it’s clear that we’re in for a warped psychological thriller as soon as our lead character is coerced into seeing a hypnotherapist in order to recall what he has done with a precious stolen painting. At that point, forget about notions of protagonist, antagonist, aggressor or victim, because the script seems determined to twist everything in sight. In the apt hands of director Danny Boyle, this turns into a visually trippy wringer in which nothing is as it seems. As you can expect, this is as far away from a comforting experience as can be, and Trance becomes a film best appreciated by jaded thriller fans who don’t mind massive incoherencies as long as the usual conventions are upended. In this film, the human mind can be infinitely re-programmed, identities shed at the touch of a voice and grudges extended over years of dormancy. It’s strictly genre fare (although there is a good monologue about the nature of ourselves as the sum of our memories), executed professionally and wrapped up with an unsettling bow. As the conflicted lead character, James McAvoy continues to become more and more interesting as an actor. Meanwhile, though, Rosario Dawson eventually steals the entire show with a showy role, while Vincent Cassel unexpectedly comes to play against type by the end of the film. Trance isn’t particularly pleasant, but it holds attention until the end… which isn’t too bad for a heist thriller.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) One of the benefits of being an omnivorous cinephile is that you never know when an oddball piece of cinematic knowledge is going to come in handy. In this case, Girl Walks Into a Bar‘s quirks makes far more sense when considered against writer/director Sebastián Gutiérrez previous films such as Elektra Luxx: the lead role of Carla Gugino (Gutiérrez’s girlfriend), fragmented script, interlocking subplots, varying tonal shifts, generally clever dialogue and presence of several good actors. It’s all meant to be a series of related stories set in various Los Angeles bars during one busy night, but it’s just as well-considered as a vignette film, with segments that don’t necessarily need to co-exist harmoniously in a coherent whole. There are highlights: Emmanuelle Chriqui’s world-weary monologue about the life of a stripper, Zachary Quinto’s clueless dentist trying to get his wife assassinated; Rosario Dawson as an employee of a nudist ping-pong club and a captivating presence for Robert Forster. While the film was conceived to be freely distributed on Youtube (although just for Americans…), it’s now making its way to specialty cable channels and can be caught there as a pleasant diversion. While Girl Walks Into a Bar is not particularly memorable, it does have a good cast, better-than-average dialogue and its inherent quirkiness makes it more interesting that most of the average fare out there.
(In theaters, December 2010) Railroad nerds better steel themselves, because Tony Scott’s latest thriller is a feature-length paean to American rolling steel, from lovely shots of moving locomotives to numerous behind-the-scenes explanations of how this stuff actually works. While it’s true that Unstoppable eventually becomes a competently-executed action thriller, it’s the film’s unusual focus on railroad mechanics that fascinate until the action truly starts. Loosely adapted from a true story (Search “CSX 8888” for the details), Unstoppable is about a runaway train and what needs to be done in order to bring it to a stop without causing massive damage. Denzel Washington is as good as usual as a grizzled engineer, Rosario Dawson does well in a role requiring no sex-appeal whatsoever and Chris Pine (stuck with a stock blue-collar character) solidifies his moderate credentials as an action hero. Meanwhile, Tony Scott deploys but does not indulge in the kind of hyperactive style he’s been using for a decade: his shots of rolling trains can become a bit too frantic to be properly appreciated, but he’s able to keep his worst excesses under control. Fittingly for its subject matter, the action scenes have the physical heft of colliding metal, the CGI gracefully bowing to physical effects. Structurally, the narrative is a predictable succession of failed attempts until our heroes step in to save the day: it’s a bit of a bother when some plans are so obviously underdeveloped that we know they’re doomed from the get-go. The “adapted from real events” presumably doesn’t extend to a few scenes milked for maximum suspense. Unstoppable is not a particularly refined film, but it delivers on its promise, and the result is a fine replacement for Runaway Train as the film most people will consider to be the definitive railroad movie.
(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.
(In theaters, July 2006) That’s it, Kevin Smith is out of the doghouse: After the disastrous Jersey Girl, this film is a thematic retreat, but an overall progression for the writer/director. Sure, going back to the Askewniverse smacks of desperation for a sure-fire redemption. There are enough fans of Jay and Silent Bob to cover the production costs of the film and that’s all that counts, right? Still, it doesn’t necessarily imply an artistic regression: Smith’s progression as a director continues to impress: While Clerks II had nowhere near the budget of the studio-backed Jersey Girl, the direction continues to progress. There are even a few nice moments here (including a sing-along to the Jackson 5’s “A.B.C.”) along with a camera that moves (!) from time to time. The editing, on the other hand, could use some work: too many shots last just a bit too long, which saps the comic energy of the film. See the far-too-indulgent “donkey show” sequence for the best examples. But it’s as a writer that Smith continues to make the most progress. Even though Clerks II continues to rely on its usual crutches (pop culture dialogue, in-your-face shock frankness, fantasy characterization), there is a solid emotional core in the middle of the R-rated dialogue, and the conclusion puts all the pieces together with a satisfying thunk. Smith is also fortunate in his choice of actors. Here, Rosario Dawson steals the show by grabbing a character seemingly written as a male dream-girl and transforming it into something extra. The film certainly won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s a huge part of its charm: While you may not understand why it’s funny to insult a Transformer fan by calling him a “Gobot”, I can guarantee you that it’s hilarious in its proper context. Now all we have to hope is that after finding solid ground once more, Kevin Smith will try something else for his next film.
(In theaters, November 2005) Movie musicals may engender a lot of sarcastic comments about their fey nature, but a good one will successfully use the tools of cinematographic grammar to create an experience quite unlike anything else in other mediums. This makes adapting a stage musical a tricky proposition at best: a bland director will simply copy the original staging and let the camera roll. Now let’s face it; there are fewer blander directors than Chris Columbus, and his Rent may have a few good moments here and there, but it seldom coheres into a top-notch movie musical. For every “La Vie Boheme” or “Tango Maureen”, the film muddles through syrupy ballads and what looks suspiciously like mid-1980s music videos. Part of the film approach self-parody: Not only was it difficult to see the film without thinking about Team America‘s “Everybody’s got AIDS!” number, but I was never convinced that Maureen’s performance wasn’t meant to be a satire of truly awful performance art. This, and other missteps such as having artists agonize over selling out, make it remarkably easy to be cynical about the Gap-branded lip service paid to vie bohème counterculture. Not that the film is a complete disaster, mind you: Rosario Dawson is scorching hot and the whole experience is superficially pleasant. But it’s nowhere near the height of what we’ve seen movie musicals achieve since Moulin Rouge! singlehandedly revived the genre.