(Video on Demand, August 2015) Viewer! Hey, viewer! Did you know that Sofia Vergara’s persona is a beautiful fiery high-class woman with a shrill Spanish accent? Knowing this, and being able to rely on Reese Witherspoon as the straight-woman of the duo, you can now write about two-third of the jokes in Hot Pursuit, a crime comedy built almost entirely around Vergara’s ability to deliver what she does best. It’s not a bad film, but it’s obviously formula-driven to a distracting point. It’s a good thing that Vergara and Witherspoon have an easy chemistry, otherwise the film would fall flat. But they do, and the film flies highest when both are engaged in physical comedy of some sort, either falling outside windows or vamping it up for unsuspecting supporting characters. There’s a pleasant rhythm to it, and it’s undemanding enough not to be disappointing in the right frame of mind. It probably could have been a bit tighter, a bit funnier and a bit wittier, but the point of the film is to showcase its two lead actresses, and anything that allows this objective to be fulfilled is good enough. I usually find Witherspoon unremarkable and Vergara annoying –so it’s a mark of Hot Pursuit’s success that I actually found both of them likable in their own way. Still, there’s no use denying the domination of the film by its own formula –if you’re looking for something off-beat, then keep going.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a long-time fan of Robert Rodriguez’s films (all the way back to Desperado on VHS), but it sure looks as if he’s spent the last decade repeating himself with a long series of sequels and spin-offs. Machete Kills is the third film to be spun off from 2007’s Grindhouse, and it suggests that the joke has been played out. Not that the film itself is unpleasant to watch: As you may expect from its neo-grindhouse inspiration, it’s suitably over-the-top, allowing Rodriguez and his ensemble cast to have a lot of fun by sending up an assortment of action movie clichés. Danny Trejo is compelling as usual as the titular Machete, but it’s a toss-up as to whether he’s having as much fun as Mel Gibson (as a Bond-grade villain), Charlie Sheen (as a lecherous President) or Sofia Vergara (using her shrill persona to good effect, for once). Even Lady Gaga gets a role as a shape-shifting assassin. The action gets silly quickly and never lets basic disbelief being an obstacle. It’s all good fun, except that Rodriguez’s low-budget aesthetics (tight framing, cheap special effects, lazy blocking, editing that allows actors to share a scene without ever having been in the same room together) are less satisfying than one would expect… especially once they’re repeated too often. Rodriguez can command bigger budgets than he used to at the beginning of his career –he should use that power for a few money shots. Still, despite the over-the-top action, shameless exploitation (often going straight to comic parody) and self-aware ridiculousness, there’s a sense that Machete Kills is a bit too big for its aw-shucks attitude. By focusing on the comedy, it even loses a bit of the edge that the first Machete had, and the focus on violence while downplaying the nudity is a step in the wrong direction. It’s too long for its own good, and in stretching out some of its duller stretches, invites tiresomeness. It probably doesn’t help that this is Rodriguez’s umpteenth return to the same source: For all of the chuckles and I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this outrageousness, by the time the end credits roll, there’s no need for a third Machete outing. Let’s leave well-enough alone and let’s hope that Rodriguez does something a bit fresher for his next effort.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) Ensemble movies are a tricky mixture: there are usually too many characters and not enough running time to do them justice, and that’s even before getting into the sad fact that not all stories are equally as compelling. New Year’s Eve does its best at using pre-built sympathy for Dec.31 to launch a tapestry of romantic subplots, but the results are still variable. The links between the characters are intricate (sometimes even played for ironic laughs, as the moment near the end where we think two characters are racing to meet… only to pass each other on the street as they race to get to someone else) and figuring them out can be a good way to keep those synapses busy… but the real point of New Year’s Eve is a big mushy feeling of romantic satisfaction by the time the end credits roll. Director Garry Marshall does his best to keep everything interesting while juggling roughly two dozen name actors, but the script isn’t his best friend in this regard. In fact, New Year’s Eve may be most remarkable for its inability to deliver a consistently enjoyable subplot. Everything feels contrived, conventional, overly dramatic or implausible beyond belief. Zac Efron romancing Michelle Pfeiffer? Eh, why not –but don’t expect anyone but those two to care. While it’s hard to single out any actor as being better than the others, it’s not so difficult to identify those who are more irritating than others: Sofia Vergara is particularly exasperating in her usual shrill near-incomprehensible screen persona. Katherine Heigl also does herself no favour by reinforcing her already-annoying typecasting. Otherwise, the best the actors can do in this mess is to remain unnoticed. It’s not as if New Year’s Eve is dislikable; in fact, much of the issues with the film are that it tries so hard to be loved that it feels desperate in taking no chances. See it at the tail end of Dec.31 if you must, but don’t let it come between you and any meaningful contact with your loved ones.