(On Cable TV, June 2018) The problem with second seasons of high-concept shows is that you don’t quite have the same element of surprise in reserve. In Westworld’s case, it means that the dizzying timeline tricks and character revelations of the first seasons can’t be exactly reproduced, and that the show has to work within known parameters. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t try to keep things interesting. Set in the few days immediately after Season 1, this second series follows characters as they react to the events of the first season, revealing new secrets along the way and digging even deeper in mind-twisting questions about personalities and predetermination. Thanks to the endless wonders of flashbacks, simulations and body/mind separation, nearly the entire cast is back (yes, even those confirmed dead), meaning that the solid acting talents of the series are once more on display. Tessa Thompson gets a deservedly more prominent role, while Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Rachel Lee Evans all keep on doing what they did so well the first time around. While I was initially disappointed by the series’ renewed focus on the park (I expected the hosts to escape in-between seasons), the park’s uncovered secrets made things even more interesting. And while this second season is straightforward about its dual-timeline structure, it does experiment with storytelling in focusing certain episodes on specific characters (some of them peripherals) and taking trips in other theme park areas to hilarious parallel effect. My pick for most-improved character goes to Lee Sizemore, formerly an annoying writer here transformed into the incarnation of everything he wished for (including a late empathy boost for his own creations) in a neat commentary on the relationship between creator and characters. Meanwhile, the season’s best episodes (setting aside the season finale that features so many character deaths that it feels obliged to have a few resurrections as well) has to be the eighth, in which a relatively unsophisticated character discovers the true nature of his world in a mostly self-contained episode that spans decades of series history. There is, once again, a lot of material to digest in Westworld—the storytelling is challenging, the themes are explored to the point of pretentiousness, and the science-fiction devices used in generally compelling fashion. It all amounts to solid TV—worth following as it airs, episode after episode.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Early word on Westworld was not good. Hyped by HBO as their next big-budget SF&F show now that Game of Thrones is on its way out, the show suffered ominous-sounding production delays while scripts were re-tuned, which didn’t bode well in the wake of Vinyl’s failure. But while this first season definitely has its issues, the result occasionally reaches delirious peaks of peak TV goodness, playing with savvy audience expectations and delivering reality-altering perceptional shift. While the show begins and more or less ends where Michael Crichton’s original 1973 movie did, there’s a lot of complexity under the surface, and the attitudinal shifts in the show’s sympathies for artificial humans is notable. In-between Inception and Memento, show-runner Jonathan Nolan is known for mind-warping scripts and Westworld is occasionally no different: the first episode is a fantastically twisted introduction to a familiar concept, while the end-stretch of the series delivers solid revelations about the nature of some characters, narrative time-play and unexpectedly philosophical rambling. It’s hardly perfect: much of the stretch between episodes 2 and 6 could have been compressed in half the time, while the so-called deep thoughts of the conclusion feel both ponderous and nonsensical. But when Westworld works, it really works. Episodes 1, 7 and 10 alone are worth the long stretches in-between. Top-notch actors such as Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright and Thandie Newton deliver good performances, the script cleverly plays to an audience that demands more from their TV miniseries and the visual polish of the result can be astonishing. Even the most pretentious aspects of the script can be seen as a plus given how high it aims. The sympathy of the series for its synthetic characters is a notable representation of the maturing of media Science Fiction—especially when humans act this rotten, can we really blame the robots for turning on their masters? I’m not sure where season 2 can take us, but as far as HBO is concerned, it’s mission accomplished for Westworld—expectations run high for the follow-up.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as intimate thrillers go, it’s hard to be purer in intent than Retreat: It features a mere handful of characters, and setting whose isolation becomes a crucial portion of the plot. It begins when a married couple seek an escape from their troubles by spending a week on a deserted island, alone on an empty estate. They are surprised by a solider claiming that a plague has swept through the globe in their absence, and that they must protect themselves against a possible intrusion. Things get more complicated afterward, but no less tense as the married couple seems woefully unprepared to deal with their dangerous new companion. Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy headline the small cast: much of the film’s tension relies on the interactions between three characters. The spatial restraint is such that one could easily imagine this story done as a theater piece. The cold and damp setting works to the film’s claustrophobic advantage, and the script is occasionally ingenious in how it gradually ratchets up the tension without necessarily taking the obvious path. (There’s a notable absence of sexual tension once that question is quickly defused, for instance) The conclusion may be a bit too nihilistic, but it does feature a nice reversal of expectations. While Retreat may not be a likable film in the most conventional sense of the word, it is an interesting exercise in suspense, perhaps most effective as an antidote to a steady diet of higher-budgeted overblown thrillers.
(On DVD, February 2012) There’s a lot to dislike about Vanishing on 7th Street, but before truly giving the film the critical savaging it deserves, let’s take a moment to point out what does work: Much of the first fifteen minutes. As our lead characters discover themselves (nearly) alone in a deserted Detroit when people have all spontaneously disappeared leaving behind their clothes, there’s an aura of mystery over the film’s premise and a few effective visuals along the way. An enigma is set up, promising an explanation. But, as soon as the film clumsily jumps “three days later”, doubts appear about its good intentions. As it soon becomes obvious, Vanishing on 7th Street isn’t interested in answers. In fact, its lack of interest extends to such things as internal consistency, continuity or compelling characters. Not only are there no answers, but the mechanics of what’s happening are wildly inconsistent, and often hand-waved with unknowables. Laws of physics change, and the plot rules are blurry enough that viewers stop caring about what’s happening on-screen. It’s not even clear that there’s a threat of sorts –or what the shadow figures are doing, exactly. Once dark jousts with darker as a cinematography motif, it’s hard not to roll eyes and laugh at the ineptness of the results. By the middle of the film, the characters are so irritating that they might as well die sooner than later: I have seldom been less interested in Thandie Newton than in this film, and even an energetic performance by John Leguizamo (as a character who comes back from the dead for no reason whatsoever) isn’t enough to redeem the film. By the time the credits wrap up, Vanishing on 7th Street earns a one-way trip to the “bad straight-to-DVD horror” shelf. As far as the extras go, the half-hour interview with the director confirms that the filmmakers had no interest in offering answers; left unknown is their lack of ability is delivering anything more compelling than a first-act mystery.
(In theatres, November 2009) It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Roland Emmerich’s 2012 tries to ape and one-up much of the disaster-movie genre. Where else can you find a 10.5 earthquake, a super-volcano and a mega-tsunami in the same movie? As such, it demands to be considered according to the particular standards of the disaster movie genre, and that’s indeed where it finds most of its qualities. The L.A. earthquake sequence is a piece of deliriously over-the-top action movie-making (I never loved 2012 more than when the protagonists’ plane had to dodge a falling subway train), the Yellowstone volcano sequence holds its own and those who haven’t seen an aircraft carrier smash the White House now have something more to live for. The problem, unfortunately, is that those sequences are front-loaded in the first two-third of the film, leaving much smaller set-pieces for the end. This, in turn places far more emphasis on the characters, dialogue and plot points, none of whom are a known strength of either the genre or 2012 itself. Sure, the cast of characters is either pretty (Thandie Newton! Amanda Peet!), competent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover) or entertaining (John Cusack, Oliver Platt). Of course, we want to see them live through it all. But as a too-late consideration of ethical issues bumps against less-impressive sequences and significant lulls (including a 15-minutes-long prologue), it becomes easier to see that this 158 minutes film is at least 45 minutes too long and suffering from a limp third act. The defective nature of the roller-coaster also makes it less easy to tolerate the hideous conclusions, screaming contrivances and somewhat distasteful ethics of the screenplay. While the clean and sweeping cinematography (interestingly replaced by a hand-held video-quality interlude during one of the film’s turning points) shows that 2012’s production budget is entirely visible on-screen and will eventually make this a worthwhile Blu-Ray demo disk, there isn’t much here to respect or even like. At least special-effects fans will be able to play some destruction sequences over and over again.
(In theaters, November 2008) It may be that marrying Madonna was the worst artistic mistake Guy Richie ever made, and his partial return to form with this film in the wake of his divorce will only intensify this supposition. Going back to Richie’s London-underworld roots, RocknRolla isn’t quite as good as Snatch or Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, but at least it’s quite a bit above Swept Away. The flashy direction is back, as is the rock-and-roll soundtrack. From the first few intense minutes, the story steadily complexifies, until you can’t tell the good from the bad guys. And there lies the biggest of the film’s problem: For all of the crazy narrative energy, bravura set-pieces and Thandie Newton’s purring performance, it’s never too clear who, exactly, we should be cheering for. There are no everyman protagonists in this crazy gallery of ever-crazed criminals. Mark Strong may be admirable in his second breakout performance of the year (mere weeks after Body of Lies), but his crime-lord personae isn’t one to empathize with. Unlike Richie’s two best films, RocknRolla is a performance to be watched rather than a film to like. It’s quite a bit of fun, and a really promising step back up in his career, but it’s still missing something underneath the surface gloss.
(In theaters, May 2008) The problem with “likable loser” movies is the balance to find between the likability and the loserness. Simon Pegg is gifted enough to put the audience on his side as the titular Fatboy, but the script doesn’t give him much to play on: Throughout Run Fatboy Run, saner members of the audience will wonder how and why his ex-girlfriend (Thandie Newton, who has seldom looked better) almost married him. And that’s before the screenwriter cheats and actively sabotages her relationship with her new beau. To be fair, however, the entire third act of Run Fatboy Run is a huge unbelievable cheat, destroying a character at the benefit of another, and pulling the type of Hollywood finish that doesn’t do much more than remind us that things never happen like that in real life. As with so many romantic comedies, the fun of the film isn’t in the main story as in the secondary characters, the subplots and the details. Alas, some of the material is so interesting as to overwhelm the rest: I was captivated by India de Beaufort’s presence, and wished more of the film would have been centered around her, or Dylan Moran’s more-interesting sidekick. While Run Fatboy Run itself isn’t particularly bad or irritating, it’s curiously uninvolving and never earns its conclusion as much as it tries to manipulate it more blatantly than most.
(On DVD, May 2009) There isn’t much to say about the DVD edition of the film: It’s still an average comedy, and the DVD commentary doesn’t do much to give us insight in the film-making process. On the other hand, India de Beaufort is featured in a number of deleted scenes, so it’s not as if revisiting the film on DVD was a complete waste of time.
(On DVD, January 2008) Every year, the Oscars play a dirty trick on completists by nominating the worst sort of tripe for one of the technical categories. Last year it was Click; this year it’s Norbit for best make-up. Well, props to the Academy: The makeup effects that allow Eddie Murphy to play three roles alongside himself are top-notch and withstand way-too-close scrutiny. On the other hand, makeup is the only thing worth noticing about this tedious comedy that multiplies the Murphy Mugging factor. The plot concerns a henpecked man (Murphy), raised by an adoptive father (Murphy), hounded by a massive wife (Murphy) rediscovering his inner strength when a long-lost love (Thandie Newton, to be pitied) moves back into town. There’s little to the predictable plot but a series of fat jokes and slight gags. The characters aren’t caricatures; they’re lobotomized stereotypes that highlight how the film was made for 12-year-old audience. The script is leadened with a series of overused jokes, unfunny concepts and dumb staging that will only make sense if you know nothing about the way the world works. (Hence the ideal 12-year-olds audience). Occasionally, Norbit manages to strike a mildly amusing note or two; otherwise, it’s a dreadful experience without much value.
(In theaters, June 2004) Oh no; here I am, twisted between a bad film and a genre I love, a ridiculous script and a director who knows what he’s doing. In some ways, this film is the epitome of dumb people’s conception of bad SF. Would I be inclined to melodramatic statements, I’d probably say something like how it “sets back the general public’s perception of SF by decades”, except that Battlefield Earth already damaged the genre’s perception for years. On the other hand, I’ve professed my admiration for David Twohy just about everywhere else, and there’s no denying that he’s attempting something very ambitious here. Too bad that it’s pure bargain-basement nonsense: despite some nifty details here and there, this movie rarely makes sense and is content to rely on tired clichés (the Furian prophecy, the easy “victory by killing the head vampire”, etc.) rather than bring forth something new. It doesn’t help that the direction is just about as original as the writing. Scientifically, it’s all trash (don’t get me started on the impossible weather patterns of Crematoria), but that hardly matters given that the film veers more often in science-fantasy territory. As such, there’s something admirable about the grandeur of the visuals: even though the film’s design is singularly ugly, it’s big and bold. Much of the same could be said for Vin Diesel, who once again turns in a serviceable return performance as bad-boy Riddick, though he’s nowhere near the impact of his turn in the prequel Pitch Black. Judi Dench and Colm Feore spend the entire movie slumming in undignified and humourless roles. Still, there’s an undeniable appeal in seeing scorched-hot Thandie Newton vamp around in a snake-tight outfit, or even Alexa Davalos do her best with the usual “tough chick” shtick. So there I am, twisted between dull directing, bad writing, a love of the genre and respect for Twohy. What’s a critic to do?
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2005) Some movies improve upon a second viewing and some don’t. This one not only doesn’t, but actively suffers from the supplement of information that is to be found on the DVD. Sure, some of the action sequences aren’t bad, the art direction is imaginative and Vin Diesel has a screen presence that can do much to compensate for the material. But nothing can raise the quality of the atrocious script, nor make sense of the ridiculous excuse for a science-fiction story. In fact, the more information is presented to us, the less sense the film makes. Yikes. Don’t listen to the audio commentary!
(In theaters, May 2000) Frustrating because it is, at the same time, so bad and so good. The script is one of the sorriest excuse for an “action” film I’ve seen in a blockbuster for a long, long time. Say what you want about Armageddon, at least it had pacing on its side. Not so with Mission: Impossible 2: If the first fifteen minutes are pretty enjoyable, the following hour drags on like molasses, with a complete lack of any action. That dreadful hour is further drawn-out by nauseatingly trite dialogue, obvious “surprises” and bland scripting. But, forty-five minutes before the end, Ethan Hunt finally gets to act like the James-Bond clone he has so obviously become, and only then does Mission: Impossible 2 become a thrill ride. That’s when characters stop speaking and start shooting, all sumptuously directed by John Woo. Slow-Motion bullet ballet, a wonderful motorcycle chase worth the price of admission in itself and a superb hand-combat sequence complete the film. A shame you have to slog through so much… emptiness in order to get to it. Tom Cruise is irreproachable -as is Anthony Hopkins’ cameo- but the rest of the actors get short thrift and Thandie Newton’s character is atrociously written. So much good stuff, so much bad stuff… and Hollywood suddenly asks itself why we think its summer blockbusters suck.