(On TV, March 2015) I’m not sure how you can go from a videogame with a rich mythos to a film adaptation that barely qualifies as an action film, but there is Hitman, an instantly-forgettable generic thriller that doesn’t have much going for it. I’m not familiar with the video game, but the mythology described on Wikipedia doesn’t sound uninteresting. Alas, the film itself can’t be bothered to do much with the elements it has at its disposal, presenting a generic east-European assassination story that feels as if it’s been done a dozen times before. There isn’t much here to distinguish the result from countless direct-to-video low-budget thrillers. Pressed for anything nice to say, it’s possible to recognize Timothy Olyphant’s screen presence, occasional visuals and maybe the four-way hitman brawl. But that’s pretty much it for a script that revels in clichés and familiar tropes. It’s best not to look too closely at the premise (for assassins trained to be inconspicuous, bar-coded red-tied suited skinheads may not be the best choice) nor the actual plot (assassinating a body double for… what, exactly?) The film is just dull, and doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere where there are actual stakes. As usual, excessive violence in the middle of a bad film makes the violence seems even more irritating. Compared to The Divide, Hitman is not the worst film I’ve seen from director Xavier Gens, but that’s not much of a compliment either.
(On TV, July 2013) I’m hardly the first person to comment upon the strange twisted relationship that American culture has with the pornographic industry (or sex in general): Any examination of the topic ends up revolving around a mixture of fascination, shame, immature comedy and half-veiled condemnation. The Girl Next Door isn’t different, as this story of a high-school senior teenager falling for a porn star neighbor seems to borrow from John Hughes’ classic comedies (but even more so from Risky Business), even as it tries hard not to condone actual pornography. It portrays porn as something both irresistible and immoral, the end message being that good guys (and girls) don’t really go all the way. (Nearly a decade after release, The Girl Next Door’s biggest laugh is now completely at the film’s own expense: it’s the idea that a soft-core sex education film could sell widely to teenagers given the wide availability of hard-core content on the internet.) Emile Hirsch is sympathetic as the all-American good kid while Elisha Cuthbert gets to smile and look pretty as the porn star (but never takes off her clothes; see “good girls don’t really go all the way” above), but it’s really Timothy Oliphant who steals the show as a porn producer who comes to ruin the hero’s life: it’s a fearless portrayal, and one that’s almost entirely magnetic despite the character’s menace. By the usual standards of teenage sex comedies, The Girl Next Door is a mark above the rest of the pack: it’s well put-together, relatively amiable and has a heart where many similar film only have dirty thoughts. Still, the ending half-hour shows the complex hoops a “safe” mainstream film aimed at teenagers must jump through in tackling pornography. Now the question becomes: if the same premise was developed in 2014, would it make a difference? One element of the answer: Watching this film on AMC is a strange experience, as much of the foul language is bleeped off… despite the film’s subject matter and occasional nudity.
(On DVD, December 2011) Few plot points are predictable in this oddball Canadian crime comedy/drama: Mis-marketed as a heist thriller on the DVD cover, High Life is a broad look at four young men planning a bank heist in the wild woolly days of 1983 where ATMs were still considered a novelty. Three of them have done time and all of them are serious drug addicts –naturally, things don’t go as planned. Darkly funny and lightly dramatic, High Life still manages to do much with little, partially due to a script that’s above the norm for low-budget film. Timothy Olyphant headlines the piece but it’s Lee MacDougals’ witty script and Gary Yates’ fast-paced direction that make the film go by even faster. It’s reminiscent of other well-written crime comedies without being derivative, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome even at less than 80 minutes. The last half-hour becomes steadily more unpredictable, and not even the violent death of a few characters is enough to erase a generally good impression. High Life isn’t exactly focused, but it’s interesting throughout, and that’s already quite a feat. The DVD presents a few short interviews and a quick making-of featurette, but don’t expect too many revelations.
(In theatres, March 2010) On paper, this film doesn’t look like much: A remake of a 1973 Romero film about people being transformed into zombies, er, crazy psychotics? Another take on the good old “Government will kill you the first chance it gets” paranoia? Yet another familiar zombie zombier ZOMBIEST film like 28 Days/Weeks Later? Not interested. And yet, even though most of The Crazies plays like a dirt-simple genre horror film, it is –for all of its conceptual lack of originality- well-made enough to hold attention even when it indulges in well-worn clichés and nonsensical set-pieces. Despite a second act lull and a predictable late-film eruption of zombies, the direction is snappy, the writing is adequate and the actors do what they can with what they’re given. Unlike the original, the film is sparse with explanations, and (at the notable exception of a few ominous satellite shots) limits its perspective what the protagonists can learn: the minuscule amount of exposition happens at a frantic pace. The subtext about government intervention is far, far less important that the genre chills and thrills, and takes a back-seat to a convincing portrait of small-town Midwestern America. Timothy Olyphant turns in a fine performance as the sheriff-protagonist, while director Breck Eisner may end up proving that there is life after the underwhelming Sahara. Until his next film, though, The Crazies is a rare competent horror film remake that rises above a hum-drum premise to deliver a decent entertainment experience.
(In theaters, June 2007) The good news are that the fourth instalment of the Die Hard series is a very enjoyable return to the roots of the good old action film: explosions, dastardly villains, a wisecracking hero, spectacular action set-pieces and things we haven’t yet seen. The not-so-good news are that it falls short of being a good Die Hard film. Over the long run, I suspect that it won’t matter: the two previous Die Hard sequels initially disappointed moviegoers who then grew fonder of them as time went by. At the very least, an older “John McClane” is back, fighting terrorists who are really robbers and trying his damnedest to save family members from consequent harm. The story is a pack of silliness (Hackers! National infrastructure! Turning all traffic lights to green!) with more logical howlers than you can imagine (including a convenient absence of traffic when needed), but at least it gives Bruce Willis something to do and plenty of opportunities to look good with an increasing number of cuts and bruises. Though the villains are a bit wasted (Timothy Olyphant’s villain never projects too much menace, while Maggie Q is wasted as a sidekick who can’t help but go “yah!” as she’s kung-fu fighting) and the direction is too scattered to be truly inspiring, there are a number of really good action sequences here and there. There’s a bit of parkour, a wall-smashing gunfight, at least one flying car, some hot jet-on-truck action and a crumbling symbol of American power. Good stuff, though I’d like a cleaner look for the action than the fashionable CGI-boosted shakycam stuff. More globally, it’s fascinating to see a mainstream American action thriller take on a plot-line that would have been pure science fiction (in concept and execution) barely twenty years ago: our heroes use cell phones, shrug over memories of 9/11, do some social engineering via OnStar and stare intently at webcams even as McClane is derided as “a Timex in a digital world”. It’s too bad that this is a different McClane than the one who starred in the first Die Hard, but I won’t complain: Fast-paced action movies are rare enough that I’ll take what I can get.
(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2008) I’m shocked: This film actually works better the second time around. Free from the initial impact of silly plotting and logical howlers, this fourth Die Hard installment surprises by how well it understands the mechanics of the character, while the direction is a cut above the jerky style commonly used nowadays. The pacing is steady and the climax delivers on its promise. The bare-bones DVD version still includes a fairly entertaining commentary with Bruce Willis and director Len Wiseman (who redeems himself after the two Underworld movies): it explains a fair bit about the conception and the making of a project that was a long time in the making. I didn’t actually expect this film to hold up to a second viewing, but it does do quite well.