(On Cable TV, October 2018) As I’ve grown up to become a cranky middle-aged movie reviewer who gets to complain that they don’t make them like they used to, here comes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to reassure me that while original mid-budget realistic drama movies are on life support, they’re not dead yet. It does help that even within the context of a contemporary adult setting, writer/director Martin McDonagh gets off to a roaring start with a strong premise: a small-town woman putting up three highly critical billboards demanding justice for her murdered daughter. The event sparks dramatic conflict across an ensemble cast of strong actors, reaching across a community to spur characters to action. As befits a film written by a playwright, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an actor’s dream with several strong sequences, well-developed characters and a dark sense of comedy that keeps viewers interested from beginning to end. Frances McDormand now deservedly owns an Oscar for her performance here, but there’s a lot more good material from Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. A strong plot means that the film’s 115 minutes go by in a flash, with a conclusion that provides some comfort but not an entirely wrapped-up happy ending. It’s quite a ride, and I couldn’t be happier to see how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri leveraged its critical success to become a commercial one as well.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I first watched Natural Born Killers on VHS two decades ago, given to me by a friend who thought it was quite the experience. He was right (for summers after, I’d refer to myself jokingly as “Natural Born Christian” whenever I shaved my head), and watching the film again today only highlights it. There isn’t much to the basic plot, as an abused couple goes on a crime rampage, are arrested, become unlikely folk heroes and then react to an attempt to turn them into TV stars during a live interview from the prison in which they’re held. But the way director Oliver Stone chooses to put together the film is special. Blending impressionistic techniques such as animation, double-cutting, various film stocks, repeated lines, colour shifts and tilted cameras (among others), Natural Born Killers aims to create a chaotic atmosphere and reach for bigger themes about violence and media amplification in American society. It still works remarkably well, largely due to solid performances and in-your-face direction. This was Woody Harrelson’s first turn as a quasi-villain, and it’s still creepily effective today. Meanwhile, Juliette Lewis is very good in a role very much in-line of her early persona role—and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually like that persona. Elsewhere in the movie, Rodney Dangerfield is brutally effective as the star of a demented expeditionary sitcom, while Robert Downey Jr. gets a small but memorable role as a ratings-obsessed TV personality. Natural Born Killer is noisy, confusing, exhilarating, depressing and sometimes even beautiful. It remains quite a viewing experience with a relevant message even more than twenty years after release. (Amusingly enough, the channel on which I watched the film at very low volume did not have fully working subtitles, adding to the messy chaos of the viewing experience.)
(On TV, January 2015) The problem beyond movies that crank up their drama beyond a reasonable threshold is that they either become funny or annoying. Seven Pounds, to its credit, begins with a fascinating mystery: Who is this sad man, what has happened to him and what is he doing? As the protagonist’s actions are revealed, though, the overwrought drama kicks in. Are we being shamed in our loose morality by a fictional character so selfless? By the time the ending rolls by, even the most sympathetic viewers will spot at least two or three major holes in the plot, and it takes a lot of forgiveness to be moved by the film’s extreme sentimentality. Will Smith is actually pretty good in the lead role, stretching acting muscles seldom used during his career. Opposite him, Rosario Dawson is unexpectedly captivating, while Michael Ealy makes an impression in a small role. (One can’t say the same about Woody Harrelson, largely wasted in a generic role). Some of the details of the film are interesting, and Gabriele Muccino’s direction is handled with skill. Still, the impression left by the last few minutes of the film is one of increasing bewilderment, if not outright disbelief: By cranking up the dramatic stakes so ludicrously high, Seven Pounds undoes quite a bit of its careful quiet setup. I’m just not sure it deserves the ending it reaches for.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I really wished I liked this film more than I actually do. After all, I’m a near-addict to the kind of fast-paced, slick commercial filmmaking that Now You See Me represents at its best, and I’m fond of thematic parallels between stage magic and thriller moviemaking. The story of four skilled magicians involved in a revenge caper that they don’t entirely understand, Now You See Me is fun to watch and filled with interesting actors: Jesse Eisenberg is perfecting his alpha-nerd persona, Mark Ruffalo is fast settling as a dependable protagonist, while Woody Harrelson has some of the best lines in the movie as an arrogant hypnotist. Having both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as supporting actors really doesn’t hurt. (Too bad about Isla Fisher’s bland character, though.) When it clicks, Now You See Me blends beat-perfect editing with skillful visuals and great audio material. Director Louis Leterrier loves to move his camera around in order to make even the most ordinary moments seem exciting, and his action scenes are impressively choreographed. So what’s the problem? Well, essentially, a lack of restraint: The film often uses blatant CGI trickery in order to fake what are supposed to be real-time stage magic tricks, and in doing so basically blows away its own suspension of incredulity: When the smallest details are so obviously fake, it’s tough to be impressed by the film’s bigger magical set-pieces. Now You See Me’s plot dynamics are also as overblown as to minimize the impact of its last narrative revelations: by the time the final sequence is supposed to blow our minds with an unexpected reversal, an excess of previous twists is bound to leave viewers’ reaction divided between “That makes no sense” and “Oh, whatever”. The caper plot is also very unlikely, but that’s part of the charm of the sub-genre. Despite its flaws, Now You See Me is an enjoyable piece of commercial filmmaking, and I even look forward to the announced sequel.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) There really isn’t anything new to this romantic comedy, but it’s a small triumph of capable execution. From the whip-taut dialogue of the opening sequence to its cheerful ending, Friends with Benefits is a clever self-aware take on the romantic-comedy formula. The fast-paced dialogue makes up a lot of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot to be said about the hipness of the film’s assumptions as coupled to the solidity of its morals. It’s a bright and cheerful comedy, funny except when it becomes convinced that it has to be serious for a while. Justin Timberlake adds to his growing repertoire of thankless roles, whereas Mila Kunis is an able sparring partner. (Woody Harrelson’s performance is also a small delight.) Friends with Benefits‘ witty script and solid dialogue (as well as brief appearances by Patricia Clarkson and Emma Stone) reminded me of Easy-A, which is all too reasonable given that both films come from writer/director Will Gluck. As much as it would be easy to criticize the schematic nature of the film’s romantic angle, its heavy dose of unreality or the carefully delimited nature of the film’s irreverence (those satin bed-sheets surely get arranged strategically, don’t they?), there’s still a lot of sheer movie-watching pleasure in watching a slick rom-com gorgeously shot. New York looks beautiful in this film, and Gluck’s direction has a nice flow helped along by some fluid camerawork. It amount to a much-better-than-average romantic comedy, one that doesn’t push any boundaries but entertains charmingly.
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Political junkies will get their fix of gossipy fantasy in this made-for-HBO docu-fictive account of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 American Presidential race as seen from her Republican entourage. Fans of the original Halperin/ Heilemann book will be surprised to find out that this adaptation barely mentions the Obama/Clinton contest and focuses solely on Palin’s selection and the backroom dealings of the Republican strategists trying to do what they can with an unsuitable candidate. At its best, Game Change is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a major political campaign as a team of self-aware political professionals has to deal with a wholly unsuitable candidate. It plays like a mainstream Hollywood comedy in which a half-wit is thrust in a position of importance… except that it really happened, and it happened recently in an American presidential election. True enough, Palin occasionally comes across in the film as more admirable than her public personae would suggest: a dedicated mom, perhaps a figure to be pitied for having been asked to do more than she ever could. Still, she really doesn’t come across well here: out of her depth, overwhelmed, petty and of limited capabilities. The casting is exceptional: Julianne Moore excels in a nearly-perfect take on Palin, whereas Ed Harris has no problem establishing himself as a sympathetic McCain. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson turns in a clever performance as strategist Steve Schmidt, the nominal protagonist of the film. The film is generally well-directed by comedy director Jay Roach and scripted competently, but it does have to work within the constraints of real-world events: The dramatic arc here is slight (especially compared to Obama’s journey) and even understanding that this is a heavily dramatized version of events as they occurred isn’t much of a comfort. Game Change will appeal to those who remember the 2008 election well, but may not be all that compelling for others. Which is fine, really: Even political buffs deserve their slick Hollywood entertainment.
(On DVD, December 2011) Every so often, a visually ambitious film slips through the cracks of distribution and promotion to land almost unannounced on video-store shelves. From the first few moments, executed with a gorgeous mixture of animation and puppet-theater, it’s obvious that Bunraku is going to be an odd and interesting film. With its fantasy-world mixture of western and samurai iconography, colourful art direction and dynamic direction, Bunraku certainly looks and feels completely different from your run-of-the-mill film. Experimental, action-packed, crammed with confident performances, it’s also a movie that aspires to the “hidden gem” section of anyone’s collection, right next to films just as The Fall and Sin City: not perfect, maybe not even accessible to audiences who aren’t predisposed to this kind of genre-blending, but surprisingly satisfying to those to do get it and certainly looks like no other film: writer/director Guy Moshe has put together a lovely piece of art. Josh Hartnett and Gackt share the lead roles, but Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman and Kevin McKidd get more remarkable roles as supporting players. (McKidd is particularly good as an eccentric killer.) The script certainly could have been tightened up: Demi Moore’s character doesn’t look as if she has anything to do, the dialogue sometimes veers toward the pretentious and there’s a pacing slowdown during the third act of the film. Nonetheless, Bunraku gains back all of its lost points on sheer visual fun alone, and from its references to other tough-guy movies. For a film that never really showed widely in North-American theaters, I predict a modest cult following.
(On DVD, May 2011) Let’s face it: “Canadian Superhero film” sounds eccentric already. It’s not much of a surprise when Defendor ends up being a very unusual attempt to explore a more realistic take on the idea of a superhero: a mentally challenged loner who reinvents himself as a superhero in a crime-ridden city. Billed as a comedy and containing a few genuinely funny moments, Defendor is nonetheless a fairly dark and unglamorous take on the superhero idea: There are no magical powers here, and the superhero fantasy itself is arguably laid bare as a coping mechanism by a mind unable to conceive of better alternatives. (That it actually works may be the film’s lone concession to the demands of popular filmmaking.) Nonetheless, the film itself is well-paced, and benefits from a superb performance by Woody Harrelson in the lead role. Other notables such as Sandra Oh and Elias Koteas round up the cast, with a flashy cameo by Lisa Ray. Where Defendor may end striking a wrong tone is in matters of expectations: There’s little conventional entertainment here, and the end of the film plays a bit loosely with the idea that it’s a comedy. It’s a challenging film in its own way, and viewer’s expectations should be calibrated accordingly.
(In theatres, October 2009) By this point in the zombie-movie craze, some stories are redundant. The basic zombies-take-over-the-world narrative has been to death and back, and anyone seriously considering making a zombie film should find an original angle on the concept –we don’t actually need another dour and nihilistic 28 Months Later. Fortunately, Zombieland takes a not-so-blackly comedic approach to the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. From the opening sequence onward, there’s a playful tone, what with explicit survival rules, kills-of-the-week and on-screen title gags. The picture is anchored by great performances by Jesse Eisenberg as a paranoid nerd and Woody Harrelson as a redneck with a natural talent for killing zombies. It’s a shame that the female characters don’t come across as fully realized, but the pacing of the picture is often too quick to allow for reflection. It’s not quite as brilliant or subversive as Shaun of the Dead, but Zombieland does manage a pleasant, well-executed B-movie vibe. Director Ruben Fleischer uses special effects wisely, has a keen aesthetic sense of slow-motion, keeps things hopping and only occasionally lets the energy of the picture flag in too-long conversation sequences. (Even at a snappy 81 minutes, the film occasionally feels a bit long.) The ending misses full marks by a few inches (the tension is diffused too quickly), but that it gets there at all without letting down the rest of the picture is remarkable. Far funnier than it is gruesome or suspenseful, Zombieland has a good future ahead of itself as a late-evening fan-favourite. The less you know about the celebrity cameo, the better.