(On Cable TV, May 2018) The idea of remaking Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age is promising, what with the mutation of digital information, the superficiality of online discourse and the vague contempt that some people (fools!) have developed for paper books. Alas, while the 2018 version of Fahrenheit 451 does manage to score a few points, it falls short of what should have been possible given those ideas. As a vision of a dystopian America in which books (or any non-state-approved information, for that matter) are outlawed, it’s familiar despite a few social media flourishes. Canada once again stands proudly as the nearest haven, something that even most Canadians would have a bit of trouble believing given the troubles that American regularly exports across the border (guns, right-wing nuttiness, bad movies…) even when it has a sane government. This Fahrenheit 451 remake, at least, has managed to snag great actors: Michael B. Jordan is usually dependable no matter the material he’s given, and that goes triple for Michael Shannon as a complex authority figure. I always enjoy seeing Sofia Boutella, and that’s also true for Khandi Alexander even in too-brief roles. The plot is your standard dystopian “hero meets a cute rebel, discovers hidden truths, blows up government” kind of thing, which would be fine if it sustained energetic details and set pieces but that’s not the case here. In fact, some of the scenes are more ridiculous than anything else: as much as I wanted to like the sequence in which the protagonist discovers a library and a militant reader, I couldn’t help but have a quick (guilty) laugh when she revealed a suicide-bomber vest of books. The third act piles up modern nonsense over dull plotting, making science-literate viewers check out well before the ending. Production values are fine (especially for a made-for-TV movie) but Fahrenheit 451’s script simply doesn’t go as far as it could, seems afraid to poke at genuinely dangerous trends and simply fails to ignite like any good rabble-rousing anti-dystopian work should.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) We’re at the tail end of eighties nostalgia now, but I won’t complain if it brings us as finely crafted action movies as Atomic Blonde. Set against the inevitable fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this is a deliciously retro piece of work that nonetheless embodies 2010s attitude and filmmaking prowess, with Charlize Theron once again burnishing solid action credentials as an English spy trying to stabilize a dangerous situation where no one can be trusted. She is intensely credible as a capable heroine, holding up against waves of assailants: Atomic Blonde’s centrepiece sequence is an impossibly long sequence in which she fights her way out of a building against countless assailants, a virtuoso demonstration of what’s now possible with personal trainers, audacious directors, seamless CGI and clever techniques. This sequence is made even better by how it leaves visible marks and bruises on the heroine, dramatically reinforcing the realism of the sequence even in a generally fantastic film. (David Leitch directs, solidifying his resume after John Wick.) Other actors also impress, from an increasingly credible James McAvoy as an action star, to Sofia Boutella playing a very unusual “soft” role going against her established screen persona. (We’re really sorry to see her go.) John Goodman and Toby Jones help complete the triple-crossing framing device that fully plays out Cold War mythology tropes. A terrific new wave soundtrack helps complete the package, adding much to the film for those who even dimly remember the late eighties. Aside from its intrinsic qualities, Atomic Blonde is also a further salvo in how the eighties are being digested into mythology, ready to be re-used as second-generation pop-culture elements. Even if you don’t care about that, Atomic Blonde is a solid action movie fit to make any cinephile giggle with joy at how well it works.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There’s something … off about this newest edition of The Mummy that exemplifies the worst in modern blockbuster movies. It’s not even worth comparing to the already classic 1999 film that perfectly blended comedy with adventure and introduced us to Rachel Weisz. It’s clunky enough on its own terms. Part of the problem is pitching the film as the first in the “Dark Universe” (nice logo!), an acknowledged copycatting of the MCU that is up to its third attempt to launch a shared universe of movies: We get glimpses of intriguing things, but the film keeps its best shots in reserve in anticipation of something else. Part of the problem is Tom Cruise, increasingly too old and too proud to play the same roles in the same way. Part of the problem is a script that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and suffers from a dull premise that can’t manage to tie everything together. It’s shorter to list the things that aren’t a problem: Sofia Boutella is (as usual) fantastic and alluring in her role as the villain mummy Ahmanet—sufficiently so, in fact, that she practically becomes the sympathetic protagonist to cheer for. Russell Crowe is enjoyable as Dr. Jekyll—the film can’t figure out what to do with the character, but Crowe’s hulking bulk is used to good effect. The plane crash sequence (as a few other scenes here and there) is well executed. Bits and pieces of the shared universe are admittedly cool—having classic Universal monsters interact and a secret organization to keep track of them isn’t a bad idea, even though The Mummy isn’t the best showcase for such a crossover event. Alas, there is so much boring stuff in the film that it struggles to keep our interest whenever Ahmanet isn’t on-screen—Annabelle Wallis is dull as the nominal heroine, and the various shenanigans regarding Cruise’s character and his relationship to death are really far less interesting than they should have been. And then there’s the ugly side of the script (a plane crash next to THE church required for the next plot point! Sandstorm in London?) and a hero we don’t really care for. Still, this is a big-budget action fantasy film, and there’s enough stuff in here to be worth a forgiving watch. I wouldn’t necessarily mind another Dark Universe film—The Mummy, after all, is better than Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein. But after three false starts, wouldn’t it be time to put the idea to rest?
(On Cable TV, January 2017) What a disappointing follow-up to a quirky breakout movie. Monsters wasn’t perfect, but it had great scenery, an interesting take on the alien invasion theme and a low-budget charm. This sequel, which abandons the dynamics of a couple’s trek in favour of a desert-bound military thriller, is just … dull. It doesn’t look too bad, but it’s simply boring in ways that its premise suggests it shouldn’t. Domesticating the alien means that deadly threats are reduced to a beautiful light show, and the story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. The links to the original film story are tenuous (same creatures, different part of the world but the background information doesn’t seem to hang together) but whatever story is put forward in this follow-up doesn’t go beyond the usual Iraq war movie clichés. The aliens are barely part of the plot. It doesn’t amount to much either, barely pushing the first film’s mythology forward and even regressing in some ways on the “alien as infection” angle. The only actor of note here is Sofia Boutella, showing up briefly to save the film from an excess of testosterone and being distinguishable from a cast that largely looks the same. While it’s possible that Dark Continent may be after the same themes of futility and hopelessness engendered by the American experience in post-liberation Iraq, there’s very little depth and even less interest in the result. File this one under “DTV sequels to avoid”.
(Video on Demand, June 2015) Kingsman was billed as “Kick-Ass for the spy movie” and that did nothing to put me in a good mood given how I disliked Kick-Ass’ mixture of cheap cynicism, crudeness and hypocrisy. It felt aimed at a far younger audience, and I feared that Kingsman would more or less go that same way. But while Kingsman does have its own crude excesses in presenting its chav-becomes-suave plotline (oy, that final joke), it’s also gleefully fun and honestly enamoured with the material it emulates: It’s instructive to compare the film with 2002’s “hipper Bond” xXx and how eloquent Kingsman can be in promoting the classical gentlemen-spy archetype. (Try not to quote “Manners maketh man” the next time you proudly pick up a good umbrella.) Director Matthew Vaughn knows what kind of film he’s building, and the result is far more satisfying than his own previous Kick-Ass. It certainly helps that the film can rely on Colin Firth as the ultimate gentleman spy. Firth, not previously known for anything resembling an action role, here gets two splendid action sequences –they may be heavily enhanced by blurry special effects, but he looks and acts the part well enough to convince. The simulated-single-shot church scene is regrettably ultra-violent, but it’s also an anthology piece for a very specific kind of action mayhem. Taron Egerton is remarkable as the lead protagonist, but the film is also filled with interesting supporting performances by Samuel L. Jackson (having fun at the expense of the usual villainous clichés), Sofia Boutella as an enabled enforcer and Mark Strong in a welcome non-antagonist role. The editing and direction flows quickly and wittily, with a great soundtrack support and enough winks and nods to other movies to make it even more interesting. A self-assured comedy with just enough action beats to make it a respectable spy thriller, Kingsman feels fresh and fun.