(On Cable TV, June 2018) As a first glance, there isn’t much to Here Comes the Boom than your usual guy comedy from the Happy Madison assembly chain: What if a high-school teacher discovered a talent for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)? Pretty much everything in the movie seems assembled according to a formula, and there are very few surprises along the way of this underdog sports comedy. Kevin James does have some charm, and it goes a long way in keeping the film afloat then the rest of it is so ordinary. This being said, there’s some thematic material worth pondering once you go back to the idea that Happy Madison films are based on fulfilling contemporary suburban male power fantasies. How about this: What if you found a way to help your friends, get the girl, contribute to the arts, vex your nemesis, inspire the younger generation and make money while punching someone? You really don’t have to look any farther to understand the film’s appeal for its target audience, and once you factor in that the film is competently made to achieve that storytelling objective, then you understand Here Comes the Boom. Seeing Henry Winkler in a solid supporting role isn’t a bad bonus, even though Salma Hayek is wasted as one of James’s increasingly unlikely string of on-screen love interests. Less familiar actors include a number of MMA stars, of which Bas Rutten does best in a supporting role—plus Joe Rogan appearing as himself. Otherwise, the film does feel on autopilot … which may count as a plus if viewers are indeed looking for nothing more than a slight comedy.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I had reasonably high hopes pure fantasy film Tale of Tales—it’s Italian, based on lesser-known fairy tales rather than familiar stories, and it seems to have a decent-enough budget to do itself justice. Then there was the film’s rating, easily aimed at adult audiences. Before long, we start understanding why: As the film adds up cruel deaths, raw desires, nudity, unpleasant plot developments and a fair heaping of violence, it’s clear that Tale of Tales is not in the comfort business, nor does it particularly care if you’re feeling put-off by the results. But then there are other issues: The three tales don’t appreciably feed off each other, they end without much in terms of denouement and they’re often pointlessly cruel like only classic fairy tales could be. The topline cast is impressive (in-between John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones) but their roles are often repellent or cut short, which stands for the rest of the film in many ways. It really doesn’t help that the film clocks in at more than two hours, far too long for the stories being told. Tale of Tales, in other words, is not just dull and long—it’s mean-spirited, unpleasant and empty of meaning. This is not a good combination, no matter one’s initial expectations.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Playing like the demented fever dream of a horny teenager discovering sex, swearing and atheist philosophy at once, Sausage Party definitely isn’t your average animated movie. Conceived by Seth Rogen, this movie takes a look at sentient supermarket food as they gradually realize that being chosen and put in the cart means that a horrible death awaits them. As a mad adult take on talking-objects movies, Sausage Party further amps the dose by going for all-out gross humour, featuring a near-constant debit of foul language, sexual references that skirt the NC-17 rating (and would definitely exceed it had it featured real humans) and violent matter. (Being eaten is, well, not for the faint of heart.) It’s almost amazing that respected notables such as Ed Norton and Salma Hayek would be game to voice the result, but there they are. The animation is of noticeably lower quality than the current state-of-the-art (there have been unpleasant reports about the working conditions in the studio that produced the film) but few will mind when the script takes such a centre stage. To its credit, Sausage Party does work: Beyond all the crude jokes and wearying accumulation of swearwords, the concept is clever, some jokes land well (I really liked the “Gum” character) and the ending goes for another conceptual breakthrough that sends off the film on a high note. For all of its juvenile energy, there is something vaguely audacious and subversive about Sausage Party—a form/function mash-up between a kind of movie typically aimed at kids to talk about adult matters of indoctrination and belief. DO NOT, I REPEAT DO NOT let younger kids see this film. Heck, don’t even let easily offended adults see it either. Still, in a predictable studio system that churns out big-budget formulas every week, there’s something endearingly anarchic and rebellious about Sausage Party that makes it stand out even in a crowded field. Much like a too-smart teenager trying out shock humour before settling down to more mature pursuits.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) Even twenty years later, From Dusk Till Dawn still holds up as a reference point. It’s one of the first titles in any “which movie changes genres midway through?” discussion, it still presents a fine collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (who also stars) and Robert Rodriguez, it showcases a prime-era Salma Hayek and it’s completely crazy when it counts. I thought I remembered quite a bit from a first viewing in the mid-nineties, but it turns out that I had forgotten a lot since then. There are more lulls than I remembered (it doesn’t help that the plot is straightforward), the special effects are a bit cheaper than in my mind and I had somehow managed to forget that iconic final shot. I had also forgotten how dark-haired George Clooney carries the picture through sheer charm and energy, and how insufferable Tarantino’s character is. The moment where the true nature of the film is revealed still carries a punch, and the film’s constant succession of gags from that moment on is still enjoyable, much like the dialogue carries quite a bit of the film. (I’m fond of “I don’t … believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw, is … vampires.”) There is a good rock-and-roll rhythm to the film that propels From Dusk Till Dawn forward even today, and I’m glad I got to revisit it with just enough memory blur to make it fun again.
(On TV, March 2016) One of the underrated aspects of movie watching as a hobby is the time-travelling (or perhaps more accurately time-fixing) aspect of seeing actors at variable times throughout lengthy careers. The case in point here is Salma Hayek, a remarkably beautiful woman at any age, as proven by films such as 1997’s Fools Rush In. She’s the best and most distinctive thing about this relatively humdrum romantic comedy. Matthew Perry (also looking incredibly young) also stars in this tale of cross-cultural love set in Mexico and Las Vegas. It’s not much of a film at the story level: much of the plot is intensely familiar when it doesn’t suffer from severe tone problems. (I’m surprised to have to repeat this, but: Abortion plot points don’t belong in romantic comedies. Never ever.) Hayek, on the other hand, gives a spirited performance as a Mexican signer trying to find success north of the border, only to find herself inextricably linked to an American man after an impulsive fling. Fools Rush In does have its share of issues over tone: the premise doesn’t lend itself to consequence-free laughter, and elements of the third act get dark, clashing with the somewhat more ridiculous elements of the plotting. It’s not, in other words, much of a success. But as an opportunity to see younger Hayek and Perry riff off each other, it’s worth a look for fans of those actors.
(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.
(In French, On TV, August 2015) What is it about the Disco era that makes every single historical film about it feel so… dour? Was it the way it imploded upon itself in a few months? Was it that it gave way to the AIDS era? I’m not sure, but there are a lot of disco-themed films, from Funkytown to Party Monster and Discopath, that ultimately show Disco as a false front for existential emptiness. All of this throat-clearing is meant to say that 54 still stands strong as pretty much the same fall-from-grace narrative, wistfully recalling an era of excess before taking it all away from the lead character. It feels very, extremely, completely familiar as a nominal protagonist played by Ryan Phillippe discovers Disco at the famed Studio 54, befriends plenty of interesting people, and then becomes completely disillusioned about it all. Two or three things still save the film from terminal mediocrity: First is obviously the period recreation, especially early on when we discover the excesses of Studio 54 at the same time as our protagonist does. Then there are a few performances worth talking about. Neve Campbell was on the cusp of superstardom in 1998, and her role here plays off of that then-popularity. Salma Hayek has an early-stardom role as a signer that makes an impression. This being said, the film’s best and most affecting performance is Mike Myers’ decidedly dramatic turn as Studio 54’s owner, a sad role with a terrific scene set on a money-covered bed. Myers has never done anything half as dramatically powerful since then, and it’s with the same kind of sadness that we can look at 54 more than fifteen years later, measuring it against the end of the Disco Era’s promises of non-stop fun. The film itself may struggle to distinguish itself, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have one or two redeeming qualities.
(On TV, April 2015) Given the success of “Puss” in the Shrek films, this spin-off prequel was as inevitable as it was likely to be disappointing. Not all supporting comic characters have enough presence to sustain a full-length movie, and so Puss in Boots is largely forgettable despite Antonio Banderas’ vocals and the efforts of the Dreamworks Animation team. Part of the familiarity is the once-again approach in poaching modern storylines from fairy-tales: Here, there’s not much Puss in Boots and a lot of Humpty-Dumpty and Jack and the Beanstalk as the protagonist gets embroiled in a heist plot. (Thankfully, the links to the Shrek movies are very, very thin –not even the settings match.) It works sporadically, just well enough to earn continued attention throughout. Much of the rest is straight from the contemporary animated-movie framework: escalating action sequences, recognizable voice cast, spirited gags and conventional storytelling. Plus a big helping of cat-related jokes. But then again, originality doesn’t really pay in developing family-friendly animated films, especially if they don’t aspire (like Pixar often does) to thematic greatness. Thankfully, Puss in Boots is light on pop-culture references, stands up on its own as a non-Shrek movie and pairing off Banderas once again with Selma Hayek, even if only vocally, seems like the right thing to do. There may not be much to love in Puss in Boots, but there is enough to like.
(On-demand Video, November 2012) Oliver Stone certainly knows how to handle criminal mayhem, and if Savages isn’t as good overall as some of its strongest individual moments may suggest, it’s a fairly strong entry in the “California noir” thriller sub-genre. Strikingly contemporary with references to legal marijuana, omnipresent technology (including criminal IT teams) and America’s latest two wars, this efficient adaptation of Don Winslow’s hard-hitting novel is a colorful blend of upstanding criminals of all stripes. Central to the tale is the happy ménage-à-trois between two dedicated drug entrepreneurs and the woman who loves them both, but Savages’ best moments come from the peripheral players: A completely corrupt DEA agent played by John Travolta, a merciless enforcer incarnated by Benicio del Toro and a powerful drug baron handled with icy grace by Salma Hayek. All of them seem to be enjoying their turn to the dark side, so much so that the nominal protagonists of the film seem to fade away. What doesn’t fade, fortunately, is Stone’s attempt to translate the energy of the novel onto film, with self-assured choices, a colorful palette and plenty of narrative forward rhythm despite Savages’ 140-minutes running time. Alas, he also chooses to end on a double-triggered ending that gives unfortunate credence to the stereotype that every ending is happier in Hollywood, ruining a perfectly adequate conclusion with one that may unsettle even happy-ending fans. (Yes, it’s sort-of-prefigured with some narrative warnings at the very beginning of the film. No, it’s still not all that effective –a more powerful film may have been produced by flipping the endings.) Also unfortunate: Blake Lively’s inert voiceovers that seem to be taken from laborious readings of trite material, and the way some subplots seem abandoned mid-way through. Still, there’s a lot to like in the way those modern criminals try to gain advantage over each other, various methods and tricks all eventually leading to a desert confrontation. It’s a bit of a treat for thriller fans looking for something a bit more ambitious than the usual straight-to-video suspense film. Stone may have trouble focusing, but despite significant missteps, Savages frequently clicks when other thrillers chug along, and that’s enough of a distinction to warrant a look.
(In theaters, July 2003) As a confirmed aficionado of Robert Rodriguez’s entire oeuvre, you won’t catch me saying anything overly negative about this last instalment of the Spy Kids trilogy. But it’s certainly not a betrayal if I simply state that this is the lesser film of the series and that its interest mostly lies in its 3D gimmick. As someone who wasn’t around in theatres in the early eighties for the previous revival of red-blue 3D glasses, there’s a definite curio factor in seeing such a film. Thanks to modern advances in computer animation technology, Rodriguez can essentially do an ultra-cheap CGI-packed 3D film for the pure fun of it. While the story in interesting enough in its typical Rodriguez hyperactivity, the cool CGI and unbeatable sense of fun are no match for the energy and heart-felt nature of the first two films. Oh, it’s good enough, no doubt about it: Ricardo Montalban and Daryl Sabara turn in good performances, we get to see Salma Hayek in 3D (with pigtails! woo!), Sylvester Stallone doesn’t embarrass himself, there is a great opening sequence with Juni as a private investigator and just about every Spy Kids character of note is back for the finale. The fun is infectious; the movie works rather well, but please, Hollywood, don’t use this as an excuse to make other 3D movies. One each twenty years is more than enough. As a 3D technology, red-blue glasses have to be the cheapest and the muckiest. Unless you’re willing to use polarised glasses, don’t bother.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Definitely the lesser of the Spy Kids trilogy, but certainly not an uninteresting film. Hailed more for its single-handed revival of 3D in theatres than its actual plot, Spy Kids 3D is still a great action film in its own right. Sure, the plot (and even the cinematography) is meaningless without the 3D. Or is it? One of the many qualities of the DVD edition is to present a colourful 2D version of the film, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment without the silly glasses. Aficionados of writer/director/auteur Robert Rodriguez already know that his DVDs contain plenty of supplementary content and this one is no exception, with a consistently interesting audio commentary, plenty of documentaries and yet another amusing “ten-minute film school”. Fun, fun, fun.