(On Cable TV, April 2019) I wanted to be more positive toward Venom, but it’s a slick and overproduced piece of typical action/SF blockbuster, well made at times and yet conceptually dull to a surprising extent. The fun here isn’t in the overall concept, which was also tackled to superior effect in the similar Upgrade. No, where Venom show signs of life is in the details of its execution, whether it’s sight gags during a rather good pursuit through San Francisco streets, a sexy She-Venom (taller and curvier than Michelle Williams) showing up for a few moments, or the ticks and quirks of Tom Hardy’s performance as a man not entirely in control of his life or his body. Part of the problem is in the ludicrous idea of making the film fit within PG-13 confines—the creature design, body horror and tendency for the monster to decapitate and eat its victims make it a poor fit for the rating. I’m usually the last person to opine that R ratings are superior, but that’s not the case here: never mind the lack of blood, it’s the film’s self-conscious restraint in the PG-13 context that makes it repeatedly frustrating—a hard-R would have allowed creative freedom to the result. Otherwise, well, Venom does feel a bit silly in between its good moments. The plausibility of nearly everything is dubious, and the film does suffer from the overproduced tendency of modern blockbusters to keep the camera shaking, overcut action scenes to shreds and throw so much CGI on-screen that we never believe in it. Fortunately, there is a human element: The always-cute Jenny Slate shows up for a few moments; Tom Hardy does turn in an interesting half-possessed performance (with a few exceptions, Hardy isn’t that interesting an actor when he’s just himself—he has to take over a bigger-than-life role to be compelling); and supporting players such as Ahmez Riz to wrap things up. There’s also some mildly interesting subtext (or rather quasi-text) in the symbiotic relationship between the protagonist and his alien host that plays well to audiences willing to let their imaginations run wild. Still, for all of the good bits and pieces to be found in Venom, they feel like exceptions dragged down by the film’s overall dull tone and plot. Something far more interesting could have been possible by using those elements better and so the film remains a disappointment no matter its scattered strengths. But I’m sure we’ll get a sequel anyway.
(Crackle Streaming, July 2017) I’ve seen four movies from writer/director Nicolas Wendign Refn so far, and Bronson may be my favourite. But keep in mind that I don’t particularly like Refn’s stuff: There is something about Refn’s use of ultraviolence and his refusal to emphasize plot that I find off-putting. Only God Forgives was dull, Neon Demon wasn’t interested in its own horror story, and Drive … eh, it was good but not as good as advertised. Bronson, in comparison, seems to acknowledge its own artificiality in presenting a stylized vision of a British criminal’s life: Bronson-as-narrator (impressively played by Tom Hardy) addresses the audience, literally plays to a theatre audience and presents the highlights of his life in a deliberately exaggerated fashion. It works, but its humour is tempered by the inherent violence of Bronson’s character, as likely to smile at others than to beat them unconscious at the slightest provocation. The presence of a visible narrator does change the rhythm of the film compared to other biopics: it removes the need for obligatory connecting sequences and allows the film to span decades in just 90 minutes. There’s something honest in the way Bronson falsely idolizes its subject, giving him the loudest megaphone to indulge in rough humour and winner-takes-all rhetoric, but allowing viewers to realize how insane Bronson can be in doing so. In allowing such a full-throated voice to the criminal, it also allows a far better representation of its subject than conventional tut-tutting biopics. (Also see The Wolf of Wall Street as another example.) Not necessarily pleasant, but certainly unique, Bronson is the second of Refn’s films, after Drive, that I’m conventionally glad to have seen rather than checking off a box in a list.
(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) As an avowed fan of high-concept movies, I couldn’t be happier with Locke’s central conceit, which is to follow a man in near-real time as he drives from Birmingham to London, holding a series of increasingly dramatic phone conversations along the way. Everything blows up as he drops everything on an important construction job to be present at a birth. The baby is his but the mother isn’t his wife and as increasingly frantic phone calls take place, what we’re seeing here is a rebirth narrative—someone clinging to one last redemption. Tom Hardy is very, very good as the only person whose face we see in the film, holding the wheel and working his car’s top-of-the-line electronics during a nighttime drive. The amazing thing about Locke is that its gimmick has an effect on tone. While the story could be a radio play if it tried (The camera never leaves the car in-between beginning and end, although there is a noticeable overhead shot midway through), the visuals of driving down a highway at night means that there are always lights moving on-screen. The impact is profound: transforming, through sheer kinetics, a drama into what feels like a thriller given constant motion. There are definitely risks in making the film’s protagonist such a borderline unlikable character. Abandoning a major construction work site on the eve of a major concrete pour is not rational behaviour, and neither is blowing up a marriage through phone calls. It gets worse as we dig into the reasons for the drive: a one-night stand with a lonely woman (and not a particularly likable one from the script we’re given) leading to a pregnancy. It’s nearly a miracle that audience hang in there long enough to get a glimpse at the father issues of the protagonist. Writer/director Steven Knight is a genius for thinking of the concept and for keeping it going as long as he can (and making us learn far more than we’d ever imagine about concrete pouring). You can add Locke to the list of great one-location movies. At a snappy 82 minutes, it’s not perfect … but it’s really good and it makes the most of limited means.
(First attempt, Video on-demand, August 2015) My wife and I paid for this video on-demand movie, stuck through its first dreary fifteen minutes, then gave up: The movie apparently starts three times, but without any kind of compelling narrative hook or moment-to-moment narrative rhythm. We never went back to the film. Child 44 got horrible reviews from the film-critic community, and I can understand why: Even months later, I’m not exactly in any hurry to go back and see what we missed.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) Re-watching Child 44 and sticking to it until the end did it absolutely no favours. It’s still an unimaginably dull movie. Viewers suffocate under the weight of the Soviet regime, and the movie does its best to make the suffering last as long as possible with subplots that go nowhere, glacial pacing, uninteresting characters and a direction that does its best to kill whatever tension, suspense or interest that the movie may hold. Even for a historical thriller in which our disgraced heroes track down a detestable child murderer, Child 44 is unbelievably boring. The top-notch cast (Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnerman, Vincent Cassel, etc.) isn’t given anything interesting to do or to say. There is potential in the premise of the film, and sometimes in the picture it shows—but that potential does not extend to anything approaching entertainment or viewing pleasure—the film takes forever to start, take forever to build and forever to end. I’ve seen far worse movies this year, but even the bad one still had more entertainment value than Child 44. Complete dud.
(Video on Demand, May 2016) From the first moments, it’s obvious that The Revenant is going to be a beautiful film, a long film and a film with a lot more on its mind than a survival/revenge story. It could have been a cheap and efficient 90-minute exploitation film, considering the nature of the story: As far as incredible stories of survival are concerned, it’s hard to beat a gravely wounded man in 1790s American wilderness travelling 300 kilometres to seek the man who left him for dead and killed his son. Extreme survival, justified revenge, beautiful nature backdrops… No-one would have faulted The Revenant for focusing on the primal survival/revenge story. But in the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the result is a few steps above the strictly necessary. A savvy blend of nature shooting and cutting-edge special effects allows for lengthy, almost unbearable sequences of violence set against spectacular natural landscapes. In-between harsh weather, aggressive bears, warring white groups and wronged natives, there are many moving parts in The Revenant, and the script effortlessly plumbs at the complexities to be found in even such a so-called wilderness. Leonardo DiCaprio is remarkable as the hero of the story, even though Tom Hardy also does a lot as the antagonist. Still, the stars here are cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Iñárritu, transforming an exploitation premise into A-grade filmmaking. It’s true that the result could have been a bit shorter and less repetitive, but it feels a bit ungrateful to ask for less of an excellent film.
(Video on Demand, March 2016) The problem with Legend isn’t that it’s a bad movie: As a fictional presentation of the true-life story of the Kray twin brothers that dominated London’ organized crime scene in the sixties, it’s a more interesting than usual take on the mob story. It provides Tom Hardy with a splendid acting springboard as he ably plays both brothers with very different styles, showcases sixties London, plays with the real-life absurdities of the Kray brother’s relationship with the Establishment and effectively structures itself around the sentimental life of the sanest Kray. The problem, in fact, is that Legend has so many great things to draw upon that it doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its subject matter. It often feels unfocused, occasionally hitting upon greatness in its best moments (such as when the Krays start physically fighting each other inside a deserted nightclub), occasionally flowing with wit in its faster-paced explanatory sequences … only to crash to a halt in-between the high points. There are also some unusual narration issues toward the end that create more questions than satisfaction by highlighting how the movie is lying. While not enough good can be said of Hardy’s dual performance, the rest of the film around him feels far more ordinary—which is curious given that Oscar-winning Brian Helgeland is at the helm. When ennui sets in, there isn’t much to be done to save the rest of the film.
(Video on Demand, September 2015) “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!” is the kind of thing that post-apocalyptic science-fiction action movie fans are wont to quote after watching Mad Max: Fury Road. Despite a lengthy gap between installments, a new star, rumors of a troubled production and generalized post-apocalyptic fatigue among moviegoers, this new Mad Max is a solid action film that dares distill its essence in a nearly all-encompassing chase sequence. The non-stop action is shot impressively, with veteran director George Miller proving that he’s still a master of the form. Better yet, the action-movie template actually features a lot of world-building (in the form of crazy details that hint at much more) and relatively progressive politics as women take active roles as agents of the plot. Fury Road cleverly weaves its storytelling in its action sequences, resulting in a film that only pauses deliberately to take its breath. Tom Hardy makes for a fairly good new Max, while Charlize Theron has a strong role as the rebellious Furiosa. Still, this is Miller’s film, and the way he crams more and more excess in his stripped-down film feels like a breath of fresh air: the film is colorful, has stunts that feel honestly dangerous (or painful!). There’s also a lot of thematic depth to the film’s relentless action, from the nature of cultism to the artificial illusion of patriarchy, to altruism as rebirth. While the chase can come across as a bit repetitive, Fury Road remains a solid action film, the likes of which we see too rarely. It’s good enough to make anyone’s day.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2015) I don’t think I have fallen asleep during this film, but on the other hand so little happens through it that I can’t be sure. Adapted from a shorty story by Dennis Lehane, The Drop concerns itself with an unassuming man stuck between warring organized crime lords, trying to rescue a dog and keep his job at the local bar when that bar, used as a money drop, is brazenly robbed. Pay attention to “adapted from a short story”, because The Drop feels like a fifteen-minute segment of a longer story stretched over an entire feature film. The rhythm is maddeningly slow, and Tom Hardy fails to do much more than growl and be underestimated. Meanwhile, Noomi Rapace’s role feels a lot like the one she had in Dead Man Down. There is an overall feeling of empty familiarity about The Drop that makes it feel far longer and duller than it should have ben. There’s a thing about making gritty dramas, but sometime, they end up too gritty and unpalatable as a result.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) On paper, This Means War has a terrific (if risky) premise: What if two spies vied for the same woman? What could they do with the resources of the state at their disposal if the goal was all-and-out romance? It’s a promising idea, tempered only by the balance required to tone down the unbound misogynistic stalkerism inherent in the premise. But that’s asking far too much of director McG’s rather silly take on the idea, as he’s barely able to present the basic idea in an entertaining fashion. The fault, to be clear, isn’t in leads Chris Pine, Tom Hardy or Reese Witherspoon: All three are capable actors more than able to use their established screen persona to elevate the film above its true weight. But it’s just not a good script, and McG’s execution doesn’t do much to make it better –to the point where it’s easy to wonder what happened to the guy who delivered two relatively successful Charlie’s Angels film in the more or less the same vein. It’s easy to blame a mid-sized budget: This Means War was visibly shot in Vancouver (all the US Post boxes in the world can’t hide the Vancouver Public Library, President’s Choice breakfast cereal, or transform an HMV store into a video-rental place) and its obvious Hollywood gloss (spies in shiny high-tech offices, implausible apartments, CIA having access to priceless paintings, a foreign national working for the CIA… aaaagh.) only make it a lazy, contemptuous film. The most infuriating thing about it may be how it makes a mess out of a can’t-miss idea, a director who’s done good things in the past, and three actors who basically show up to play their usual kind of role. (Tom Hardy is particularly wasted given his chance to riff off his violent-guy persona into something more accessible.) While there are a few suitable scenes of mayhem, a few good quotes and the occasional directorial flourish, there’s very little in This Means War that works on a sustained basis. It’s the kind of Hollywood film that gives a bad name to Hollywood films, and the fact that they shot a film set in Los Angeles in Vancouver may be all that is required to be said.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as period crime-dramas go, Lawless offers a quasi-charming throwback to Prohibition-era booze bootleggers. Adapted from a docu-fictive novel written by descendants of the bootleggers (Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World) Lawless obviously takes the side of the hero bootleggers as they face off against the real criminals and the corrupt self-righteous representatives of the law. This is a romanced view of criminal activity, and while Lawless attempts something more than the usual crime drama, it doesn’t have the heft or scope required to produce a memorable result. Still, what’s on-screen isn’t too bad, especially when Lawless takes a few moments to indulge in its rural-Virginia setting. It helps that the cast is so impressive: between brother-outlaws played by Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf, an extended cameo by Gary Oldman, an evil turn from Guy Pearce and a love interest played by Jessica Chastain, Lawless has enough star-power to keep anyone interested. (Hardy’s portrayal of an almost-comically-gruff character is a standout, as is Pearce’s repellent antagonist.) Still, the film’s biggest asset is in its somewhat-sympathetic portrait of moonshine production. Our outlaw heroes aren’t sadistic or repellant: they use the minimal possible amount of violence as a tool to keep things tidy in the pursuit of an extra buck. Occasional moments of significant violence are almost expected for the genre, while lengthier lulls in the pacing sap away some of the film’s energy on the way to attempt a more ambitious kind of film. Lawless ends up falling between two chairs, never completely happy to stick to an entertaining crime drama, while never having quite what it takes to become a criminal epic for the ages. Lawless will have to settle for a good-enough film, probably more disposable than the filmmakers intended (what film isn’t?) but still reasonably entertaining in its own right.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Being neither a fan of combat movies nor family drama, the most remarkable thing about Warrior is how well it managed to keep my attention. After a shaky first fifteen minutes, the stakes become clearer: These are two brothers from a broken family picking up Mixed Martial Arts and eventually facing off in the ring. The story isn’t much more complicated than this (and the repetitive third act contains very few surprises), but the film itself is well-made, with strong performances to lure viewers in. Nick Nolte earned an Oscar nomination for his role and Joel Edgerton turns out a strong performance as a family man forced to return to the ring in desperate circumstances. Still, it may be Tom Hardy who gets the thankless role of the younger brother cast adrift in his own isolation. It all amounts to a fairly predictable, but well-executed story, one that doesn’t suffer as much as you’d think from an improbable sequence of contrivances. There isn’t much to say about the grainy cinematography (except that some shots of Atlantic City look pretty nice), but the direction is a straight-ahead affair. Heavily slathered in the usual Americana sauce (family, military, sports), Warrior takes itself a bit seriously, but in doing so manages to avoid many of the traps that a less-earnest approach to the same subject would have encountered. It’s manipulative, of course, but baldly so. It’s arguably best seen as a double-bill with The Fighter.