End of the Tour (2015)
I love movies about writers. I’ve read very little David Foster Wallace but still appreciated this movie as a character study. The film explores Wallace’s neuroses and growing disillusionment with fame and the literary world. Its highlights are the fantastic performances by Jesse Eisenberg (playing to type, as ever) and Jason Segel (who reveals some surprisingly solid dramatic chops).
A solid primer on the most famous whistleblower in US history and a serviceable examination of Edward Snowden the man. Oliver Stone has constructed a tense, visually engaging techno-thriller that is held together by the always exemplary Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Levitt’s Snowden is wracked with turmoil as he struggles to reconcile his humanistic worldview with his increasing complicity in the US government’s infringement on civil rights.
I liked this a lot, but it also had issues. Nicholas Cage and Shailene ‘wooden’ Woodley give jarring performances as Snowden’s respective mentor and love interest, and the film was clearly hamstrung by Stone’s reverence for his subject. In this portrayal, Snowden is deified – a savant with few faults. Where’s a trace of ego? Why is Snowden so tiresomely secure in himself and his abilities? Why does he never waiver in his resolve to Do the Right Thing? Without adequately deconstructing this complex figure the movie devolves into politically self-serving wank.
Snowden is superficially entertaining, but I wish Stone had taken a more nuanced approach.
Now to move away from the quote-unquote ‘highbrow’ stuff and onto something more my lane. I’m a self-professed horror fanatic who had somehow never seen the Scream movies. I realise they aren’t revered as high-points of the genre but it’s important to me to see all the tentpole movies that mark the genre’s evolution. Scream may be hilariously dated, but it marked the proliferation of slasher films in the late-Nineties–early-Noughties.
Scream is actually whip-smart in the way it makes playthings of stale genre conventions. It uses meta humour to joyously celebrate the genre while at the same time lampooning it and turning it on its head.
The cast is charming and memorable. The perennially underrated Neve Campbell keeps things grounded, while supporting cast members like Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Matthew Lilard and a hilariously boyish Skeet Ulrich (better known to me as F.P. Jones on CW’s Riverdale) bring levity. There’s also a brief but memorable appearance by Drew Barrymore, who kills it (or rather is on the end of said killing) in the cold open.
For what it attempts to be, Scream is a certified classic, and a real bright spot in an otherwise turgid period for the genre.
Scream 2 cranked the meta humour up to eleven and wryly mocks big studios’ obsession with unnecessary sequels. It complements the original, adding depth and layers, and was, I thought, better than it had any right to be.
Scream 3 forces the meta humour up to fifty-five and collapses with the weight of its own smugness. It has some decent ideas – the movie-within-a-movie conceit is cute, and I thought the killer’s connection to Sidney was novel – but the execution is amateurish. This is the only Scream movie that wasn’t written by original creator Kevin Williamson and it shows.
From browsing forums it seems like Scream 4 is considered something of a resurgence. And it is – if only by comparison to the woeful third entry. Scream 4 is the franchise at a cross-roads. It has very little to say with its returning characters and fails to usher in the next generation. On one hand, it’s lifted by its brilliant social commentary but on the other it shows how tired the series had become by indulging in some of the franchise’s worst tendencies. I really don’t know how to feel about it. The only thing I’m certain of is that it wasn’t as memorable as the first two.
As the movies declined in quality and cultural relevance, the real hook to the sequels (the ‘emotional through-line’) was seeing the growth and maturation of the three main characters: Sidney, Gale and Dewey. Sidney suffers a lot of emotional trauma throughout her journey, and I loved the way these movies explored the effects this had on her. Over the course of a decade Sidney is terrorised by multiple people. The constant betrayals make her coarse and untrusting, but each time she tries to withdraw from people she is drawn back by a compulsion to help others. She’s brave, selfless, and slowly finds inner strength over the course of the four films. This makes her a certified badass in my book.
Gale and Dewey are… more complex. For those who don’t know, their actors, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, began a real-life relationship following their on-screen romance (talk about commitment to a role). During the first movie, their characters constantly bicker and berate each other to mask their obvious attraction. Dewey is a young and incompetent police officer who desperately wants to be taken seriously, while Gale is a self-involved ratings-obsessed weather woman with poor social skills. Naturally they find and bring out the best in each other, as each movie ends with their relationship stronger than it started.
But having our star couple consummate their attraction is boring, so Scream 2 and 3 opens with them single and jaded, perhaps so they can attempt to recapture their hilariously catty banter. The good place they find themselves in at the conclusions of Scream 1 and 2 are nullified when Gale inexplicably gets cold feet. She back-and-forths between feeling unworthy of Dewey’s love and convinces herself that being in a relationship will jeopardise her chance at professional world domination. And, in turn, Dewey navigates Gale’s insecurities by making it all about himself.
I love that each Scream movie features a mini romantic arc between these two characters. As weird as this sounds for a horror franchise, it’s largely why I persisted with these movies (and why I’m spilling hundreds of words over them). Scream’s sequels could have easily followed entirely new casts with the same template, but they’d be less memorable for it. Dewey and Gale have far more depth than most of their genre contemporaries, so I’m glad they stuck around.
Unfortunately, the last thing I want to mention about the Dewey-Gale relationship is how unsatisfyingly it concludes in Scream 4. You see, during the writing of Scream 4, David Arquette and Courtney Cox suffered a messy IRL divorce. I believe this development negatively affected their performances and how their characters were written. Scream 4 is the only movie not to place some emphasis on their relationship. The Gale and Dewey we meet in Scream 4 are bitter, fractured and palpably hate each other – just like their actors, no doubt. It’s such a fizzling end to an otherwise great love story. The movie is actively worse for it, which I think illustrates how much their banter buoyed the other Scream movies and made them such fun romps. Dare I say it, Scream 4 is depressing. I think I would have preferred if Gale and Dewey weren’t in it at all and were instead referenced. I guess I’ll always have my head-canon…
The Disaster Artist (2017)
As an unabashed fan of The Room, this was a real treat. Laugh out loud funny in places, with a surprising emotional core. The insights into Tommy Wiseau were great (albeit a bit shallow) and the jokes at his expense were mostly good-natured. The Room sounded like an incredible production to be a part of, as this movie attests.
The Austin Powers Trilogy
This was a free-to-air-mandated rewatch, as I was on holiday roughing it without my usual streaming services. These movies were favourites of mine growing up, so I was excited to see them again after so long. The original, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, remains an inventive James Bond spoof and a fun irreverent movie in its own right. This movie is just so damn charming, and is actually pretty sweet beneath the façade of toilet humour.
Its sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, didn’t hold up quite as well upon rewatching. That’s not to say it’s not entertaining – it is. Its new characters (Mini Me, Fat Bastard) and scenarios (time travel, Austin losing his mojo) are fun, and there are many clever riffs and callbacks to the first movie. I have always loved the offhand way they dispense of Elizabeth Hurley’s character. It’s such a transparent middle finger to continuity.
“Vanessa is a fembot!”
“Yes,” says Basil mournfully, “We knew all along, sadly.”
Austin looks crestfallen. Then he looks at the camera and says, “Wait a tic… That means I’m single again! Yeah, baby!”
Then the movie barrels on with no further explanation. Brilliant!
Oddly, as with the Scream sequels, my main problem with this movie is that it lacks an emotional core. Unlike in its predecessor, Austin is no longer a fish out of water learning modern-day values. He’s in his promiscuous free-wheeling element. With Vanessa gone, there’s no one to play the straight man. No one finds Austin uncouth or offensive. There are no generational misunderstandings. That’s kind of a problem. Not that I necessarily wanted to see some toothless domesticated version of Austin, but seeing him struggle to grasp with the craaazy concept of monogamy in the first film was a comedy goldmine. Felicity Shagwell brings very little to the movie and is virtually Austin’s female double.
Even as a youngster, I was discerning enough to know that Goldmember was awful. While The Spy Who Shagged Me referenced old material to good effect, the same trick doesn’t work three times. Goldmember is lazy, uninspired and overly reliant on recycled gags. Beyoncé is given no workable material, so mostly stands around looking uncomfortable. Goldmember himself is a mediocre sight gag stretched into a full antagonist. The late-game retcons of character histories are weird and unwelcome, and the meta humour is weak. I respect that they tried something different narratively instead of retreading the first film again, but it really didn’t work.
That said, I give props to the only memorable parts of this film: Michael Caine as Austin’s philandering, emotionally unavailable father, and a literally riotous prison rap by Dr Evil and Mini-Me (RIP and thanks for the laughs, Verne Troyer).
On the whole, I feel like this franchise was in sore need of a redemptive fourth film. But that said, I’m not sure present-day Meyers could convincingly portray Powers as a sex symbol. Plus there’s no getting around that the comedy landscape has changed dramatically. Still, I think a fourth movie could work if they changed things up. Austin reckoning with being ‘last season’, a has-been, a former sex symbol could be all kinds of hilarious. Fashion changes, beauty is ephemeral and the male ego is invariably fragile. Zoolander got great mileage out of these ideas.
I also think a present-day-set Austin Powers movie could really work. Seeing Austin and Dr Evil trying (and failing) to navigate the current social culture could be hilarious. Seeing them poke fun at social media and stumble through a minefield of political correctness could be great. Alas, they’ve probably left it too long, which is a real shame.
I love the Ringu films and even find merit in the American remake The Ring (largely because Naomi Watts is amazing and brings gravitas to every project she does). The Ring 2 was unnecessary (seriously, I rewatched it; the whole thing is hilariously redundant), but I thought a modern-day reinterpretation of the viral curse concept had promise.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out. I won’t mince words: Rings is hot festering garbage. It squanders the opportunities to escape the increasingly convoluted mythos of Samara and half-asses its modernisation of the cursed video tape (the only conceivable reason for its existence, I thought!). Avoid or you may inherit my curse of forever roaming the Netflix landscape in search of mediocrity.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Overlong, tonally confused and poorly paced. However, I give props for the excellent world building and Colin Farrell’s memorable performance. I’ll also commend this movie for, at the very least, defying expectations about what a Harry Potter film should be.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
This is a weird anomaly in the pantheon of animated Disney features. Its plot is highly unconventional. I rarely see this movie praised or even acknowledged. It’s truly fallen through the cracks, despite the fact it had a strong female character, an emphasis on familial over romantic love and the exploration of a minority culture years before it became trendy to do so.
What makes this movie weird to me is it’s really not that funny. It’s actually hard to watch. As a kid, I think I would have found the antics of the titular alien Stitch hilarious, but watching it as an adult I was far more invested in the plight of Lilo’s older sister, Nani. When her parents die, Nani has the responsibility of raising Lilo foisted upon her. But Lilo has an impish nature and routinely does things that make Nani’s life harder. As such, Nani is frayed and frustrated, and Lilo is this petulant little shit. In short, they’re sisters who are each grieving this tremendous loss in their own ways.
Nani gets piled on at work and home, and through little fault of her own is made to look incompetent in front of a terrifying social worker. While Lilo and her new alien pal Stitch are having a gay old time causing hijinx, Nani is headed for a complete mental breakdown. With this mind, I found it hard to laugh at the film’s lighter moments. All I could see was Nani’s struggle.
I saw the poster for this movie and wrongly assumed that Stitch would be some cute well-meaning alien who comes into Lilo’s life and causes a bit of drama through innocent misunderstandings of Earth customs. There’s a bit of that, but I never considered that Stitch would be some nihilistic genetic experiment, a biological weapon created to destroy. That’s definitely not what a lifetime of Disney movies predisposed me to think.
Through no real fault of his own, Stitch is a total asshole. He is selfish and manipulative. Through happenstance, Lilo adopts him, mistaking him for a new breed of dog. Throughout the movie he has to learn to defy his own murderous nature. Towards the end, he has a total existential crisis. It’s totally bizarre as far as Disney fare goes. I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it.
Tomb Raider (2018)
So underwhelming. This movie would have been a shoe-in if they’d just stuck to the plot of the game it was based on. Every diversion made it worse. Alicia Vikander did a great job with the role, but had very, very little to work with. Since Lara has no one to bounce off for most of this movie, her character is left woefully underdeveloped. This didn’t have to be a beige action movie. It could have been something special: a survival story about a young woman who’s desperate to measure up to her impossible family legacy.
Instead we get a smug twenty-minute bike-riding set piece, a whole lotta shallow angst and the actual island portion of the story feeling like an afterthought.
The Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
A stock standard low budget horror film with an eerie Eastern European aesthetic. Its location gives it an incredible atmosphere, but this is not enough to elevate its poor acting and predictable plot. I also found its entire existence insensitive to actual Chernobyl survivors.
Disappointingly mediocre. I love the zombie apocalypse genre and was eager to see Arnold Schwarzenegger tackle a more dramatic role. Unfortunately, the whole thing sorta ambles on (resisting urge to make zombie puns) without direction. It’s boring, angsty tripe that wrongly assumes it’s profound.
Beyond that, it does nothing new for the genre. You know those Walking Dead episodes where a character is bitten but their loved ones refuse to accept the inevitability that they’re gone? This is that, stretched out into a movie with worse acting and, incredibly, an even lower budget.
Vampire’s Kiss (1989)
Nicholas Cage’s best performance bar none. Give that man ten Oscars already.